Thursday, 12 November 2015

Movie Review: Inventing The Abbotts (1997)


A coming of age drama, Inventing The Abbotts has good intentions and decent characters, but also gets bogged down in a narrow narrative scope that veers towards the tiresome.

The small Midwest town of Haley, Illinois, in the 1950s. Teenaged brothers Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug Holt (Joaquin Phoenix) are brought up by single mom Helen (Kathy Baker), their father having died a long time ago. Jacey is intense, driven and determined to move ahead in life. Doug is much more mellow and awkward. Haley is dominated by the rich Abbott family, presided over by patriarch Lloyd (Will Patton).

The three Abbott daughters are objects of fascination and desire. Alice (Joana Going) is about to get married. The wild Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) does all she can to irritate her father, including carrying on an affair with Jacey. The more timid Pamela (Liv Tyler) has eyes for Doug, but he is also infatuated with Eleanor. As Jacey and Doug transition from high school to college, Jacey runs afoul of Lloyd's anger, Eleanor disappears from town, Doug has an on-again, off-again relationship with Pamela, and the complicated history involving Lloyd, Helen and the boys' dead father emerges.

A slice-of-life drama and romance, Inventing The Abbotts aims for a poignant vibe, nurtured by a love and anger in a small town milieu. Director Pat O'Connor occasionally succeeds in touching the tender chords of young hearts evolving into adults. But as the film progresses into its second half, the story (originally a Sue Miller novel) narrows down to Jacey's soulless obsession with all things Abbott, while Doug and Pamela discover new ways to hurt each other. Instead of seizing opportunities to become adults, the boys' behaviour more often than not appears to regress, confining the film into a limited emotional box.

In its better moments, the film does offer tastes of flavourful topics. There are intertwined themes of classicism, with the Holts inherently seeing themselves as subsidiary to the rich Abbotts, but the Abbott girls also struggling against their own family's reputation. The shadows cast by fathers, present or missing, also provide rich grounds for exploration, with Lloyd Abbott and Helen's deceased husband sharing a history that will be painfully and gradually revealed. The relationship between the two brothers Jacey and Doug is fraught with minefields, and the film takes no shortcuts towards brotherly reconciliation.

The performances are consistent with the material, and the limited character growth means that the acting need only be satisfactory rather than stellar. Joaquin Phoenix occupies the emotional centre of the film, and provides Doug with the awkwardness of small town youth beginning to grapple with adult problems. Billy Crudup infuses Jacey with bitter fervor as a young man who believes that the world owes him, but Crudup is most hampered by a script that forgets to allow Jacey to grow up.

Among the girls, Jennifer Connelly succeeds in making Eleanor an object of boyhood fantasy but then disappears from the film for a long period. Liv Tyler is honest as the down-to-earth Pamela, living in her sister's shadow. As the parents Kathy Baker and Will Patton are adequate in support, but again their characters remain at a steady state. Michael Keaton provides uncredited narration as the grown-up Doug.

Inventing The Abbotts is sometimes pleasingly wistful, and just as often, painfully wasteful.






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