"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