A throwback to the small-town dramas of yesteryear, Pat O’Connor’s “Inventing the Abbotts” is an emotionally powerful but extremely old-fashioned coming-of-age saga, set in 1957. Though dealing with such universal issues as love, sex, identity and the burden of family ties, this straight-laced pic is so removed from the sensibilities and tastes of contempo youth that its chances to register strongly at the box office depend almost entirely on the appeal of its charming cast of up-and-coming actors.
O’Connor, whose last film was modest sleeper success “Circle of Friends,” also set in the 1950s, again adeptly evokes the recent past. He’s an efficient scene-setter who pays meticulous attention tonarrative detail. But while one appreciates the filmmaker’s determination to avoid the melodramatic or soap-opera approach of “Peyton Place,” a movie made in the same year that “Inventing the Abbotts” takes place, it doesn’t help matters that the new film is too respectful of its material, lacking humor, irony and detachment.
Evoking such studies of rural Americana as “East of Eden,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “The Last Picture Show” and, most recently, “Legends of the Fall,”story centers on the intricate relationships between two sets of siblings, the Abbott girls and the Holt boys, situated on opposite poles of the social spectrum.
Story begins with a lavish party at the Abbott mansion to celebrate the engagement of eldest daughter Alice (Joanna Going) to a wealthy steel heir. “Alice is the good one,” Pamela Abbott (Liv Tyler) tells her poor friend Doug Holt (Joaquin Phoenix). “Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) is the bad one, and I’m the one who gets off the hook.” Though belonging to different classes, Pam and Doug, both 15, share something important in common: Neither cares about family status or wealth.
Almost diametrically opposed to Doug is older brother Jacey (Billy Crudup), who upon graduation from high school plans to attend the U. of Pennsylvania. Right now, however, he is stuck with a lousy job at the gas station, where he’s forced to service the new Cadillac of patriarch Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton). Jacey has carried a chip on his shoulder since his father died in a lake accident, and still resents the fact that his mother, Helen (Kathy Baker), apparently sold his dad’s patent for a full-suspension file drawer to Lloyd.
In the manner of many Hollywood small-town sagas, the town of Haley, Ill., is burdened with scandals from the past. Primarily, there’s gossip that Helen had an affair with Lloyd and that she was confronted about it publicly by Lloyd’s wife, Joan (Barbara Williams). The Holt boys talk about it constantly, but neither seems to have the courage to ask their mother whether it’s true — until the film’s conclusion.
Most of the narrative focuses on sibling rivalry, the romantic affairs of — and complicated interactions among — its quintet of characters. Not surprisingly, Jacey, the handsome brother, eventually beds all three sisters, while Doug, the more bashful and genuinely romantic type, sets his eyes from the very beginning on Pamela.
In recent years, Hollywood movies have dealt more openly with race and ethnicity, but have avoided consideration of status and class, which are at the center of “Inventing the Abbotts.” Pic deals in a matter-of-fact and unsentimental manner with working-class lifestyle, downward mobility and marriage as a legit avenue for improving one’s lot in life. The animosity between Lloyd and Jacey is based on their similarity: The elder man, who had himself married into the upper class, is now determined that his girls will marry their own kind.
Scripter Ken Hixon also demonstrates vividly how the past impinges on the present, or, more specifically, how misunderstandings over the past have damaging effects on one’s identity and perception of reality.
Pic’s ensemble is uniformly good. Though Tyler and Phoenix are a bit too old to play 15-year-olds, both performers, endowed with the film’s meatiest parts, render sensitive performances. Crudup, one of Hollywood’s hottest young actors, also stands out, playing a variation on the misunderstood rebel-hunk, the type of role that catapulted James Dean, Warren Beatty and Brad Pitt to major stardom. Allotted secondary assignments, Connelly and Going, as the other Abbott sisters, and Patton and Baker, as the Abbott and Holt parents, respectively, acquit themselves decently.
The film is well directed, but pacing is too slow until the last couple of chapters, when the truth about past mysteries is revealed. Tech credits, particularly the sharp lensing of Kenneth MacMillan, O’Connor’s longtime collaborator, are pro across the board.