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Inventing the Abbotts

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Inventing the Abbotts

Starring: Billy Crudup, Joaquin Phoenix
Director: Pat O'Connor
Rated: R
RunTime: 100 Minutes
Release Date: April 1997
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Liv Tyler, Joanna Going, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates

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Review by Steve Rhodes
2½ stars out of 4

"My brother and I were born strangers." The bittersweet drama INVENTING THE ABBOTTS chronicles the coming of age of two brothers, Doug and Jacey Holt, played with touching sincerity by Joaquin Phoenix (TO DIE FOR) and Billy Crudup (SLEEPERS). Set in 1957 in Haley, Illinois, the show is reminiscent of several old movies, but the story remains fresh and relevant.

Doug has fewer social graces than his slightly older brother Jacey. Doug will try anything, including painting on fake sideburns, to impress the girls. Jacey, on the other hand, attracts female companionship like honey attracts flies. As much as they profess their differences, they are remarkably similar in looks and tastes.

The boys are bound together in a close knit family run by their grade school teaching mother, Helen. Kathy Baker plays the widow with a natural grace. Her husband died during a childish bit of bravado before Doug was born. Baker's minor, but crucial, role has its biggest impact in a small revelation scene at the dinner table.

Although the story centers on the boys, equally interesting are the girls who live in the town's mansion. Jennifer Connelly (MULHOLLAND FALLS) plays the middle sister Eleanor Abbott, Liv Tyler (THAT THING YOU DO) is her younger sister Pamela, and Joanna Going (WYATT EARP) is her older sister Alice.

Jennifer Connelly gives a strong performance as the sexually promiscuous sister. She unabashedly loves sex and views sleeping around to be as natural as eating. Her no-holds-barred role even includes one of the few comedic scenes in the show. As partially shown in the film's trailers, when Doug tries to look up her dress in the library, she has both an enticement and a surprise for him. Connelly steals her scenes in INVENTING THE ABBOTTS.

The older sister Alice has a child and is about to be divorced. Alice is trivially older than the others, but the extra two years means she is the only one that can buy the beer. Alice's role is small, and Going's acting diminishes rather than enhances its importance.

The story focuses more on Pam than on the other sisters. Pam looks and walks an ostrich. The costumes by Aggie Guerard Rodgers and the makeup, transform a normally radiant Tyler into a gawky teenager -- the mirror image of her looks in STEALING BEAUTY. Unlike her sexually active sisters, Pam wants to take it slow, real slow, when it comes to sex. She draws the line at kissing, which drives Doug's raging hormones wild. Tyler's acting is convincing during this part, but not later when Pam has supposedly matured some.

The Abbott family, like the Larrabee family in SABRINA, uses parties as a form of control. They throw them constantly as largess to buy off the town. The Abbotts are run with an iron glove by the father Lloyd (Will Patton). Patton (THE SPITFIRE GRILL) outlines his part but little more, happy to keep it pure formula. Lloyd's wife Joan (Barbara Williams) shows up but has nothing to do.

Screenwriter Ken Hixon creates a movie full of poignant and realistic vignettes. Typical of these is the simple scene of Doug and Pam horsing around on the family sofa. He wants to go upstairs and have sex with her, but she resists. They end up having non-sexual fun, just kidding around with each other. Their play comes to a halt when her big feet hit him in the groin.

The film's major difficulties stem from Pat O'Connor's direction. O'Conner, who gave us the delightful CIRCLE OF FRIENDS, seems incapable of weaving Hixon's vignettes into a compelling whole. The film drags frequently and the actors are allowed to let their voices taper off into incomprehensible, low mumbles. The film's pacing and energy level too often sag. The good parts are so insightful and strong that they easily carry the picture, but the interludes can be quite frustrating.

Copyright 1997 Steve Rhodes

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