You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Inventing the Abbotts

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.

Doug Holt - Joaquin Phoenix Jacey Holt - Billy Crudup Pamela Abbott - Liv Tyler Lloyd Abbott - Will Patton Helen Holt - Kathy Baker Eleanor Abbott - Jennifer Connelly Alice Abbott - Joanna Going Joan Abbott - Barbara Williams

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.

Popular on Variety

Inventing the Abbotts

Production: A 20th Century Fox release of an Imagine Entertainment production. Produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Janet Meyers. Executive producers, Karen Kehela, Jack Cummins. Directed by Pat O'Connor. Screenplay, Ken Hixon, based on the story by Sue Miller.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color), Kenneth MacMillan; editor, Ray Lovejoy; music, Michael Kamen; production design, Gary Frutkoff; art direction, William V. Ryder; set decoration, Kathryn Peters; costume design, Aggie Guerard Rodgers; sound (Dolby), John Patrick Pritchett; assistant director, Vincent Agostino. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox studios, L.A., March 6, 1997. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 110 MIN.

With: Doug Holt - Joaquin Phoenix Jacey Holt - Billy Crudup Pamela Abbott - Liv Tyler Lloyd Abbott - Will Patton Helen Holt - Kathy Baker Eleanor Abbott - Jennifer Connelly Alice Abbott - Joanna Going Joan Abbott - Barbara Williams

More Film

  • Stray Dolls Movie

    Samuel Goldwyn Films Acquires Cynthia Nixon's Tribeca Player 'Stray Dolls' (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Stray Dolls,” a Tribeca Film Festival entry from up-and-coming director Sonejuhi Sinha, has sold North American distribution rights to Samuel Goldwyn Films. Eyeing an early 2020 release, the film stars breakout Geetanjali Thapa, Olivia DeJonge (Netflix’s “The Society”), Robert Aramayo (young Eddard Stark on “Game of Thrones”) and Cynthia Nixon. Thapa plays Riz, a former [...]

  • Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland. Actors Mick

    'The Burnt Orange Heresy' With Mick Jagger, Donald Sutherland Sells Worldwide

    HanWay Films has closed out worldwide sales on “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” the art-heist film that screened in Venice and Toronto. The movie stars Mick Jagger, Claes Bang, and Donald Sutherland. It closed the Venice Film Festival. In addition to North America, where Giuseppe Capotondi’s film will open in spring 2020, SPC has acquired rights [...]

  • Between Worlds Nicolas Cage

    Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff to Star in Pulse Films’ Truffle Hunter Movie ‘Pig’

    Nicolas Cage is a truffle hunter who wants his pig back in “Pig,” which started production Monday in Oregon. The film, which Michael Sarnoski will direct from his own script, will also star Alex Wolff (“Hereditary”). Pulse Films, BlockBox Entertainment, Valparaiso Pictures and Cage’s Saturn Pictures are producing in association with Escape Artists and Sweet [...]

  • Sid Haig Dies Devil's Rejects

    Sid Haig, Horror Actor in Rob Zombie Trilogy, Dies at 80

    Sid Haig, known for his role as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” trilogy, died Saturday. He was 80. His wife announced the news on Instagram. Haig had a fall several weeks ago and suffered serious breathing complications after arriving at the hospital. He died of a lung infection. “On Saturday, September [...]

  • France Boasts Europe's Highest Number of

    France Still Boasts Europe's Highest Number of Theater Screens Per Capita

    France, Europe’s No. 1 movie-going nation, still boasts the continent’s highest number of screens per capita, according to a new study conducted by the French National Film Board (CNC). As of last year, France had 2,040 theaters and 6,000 screens – 69 more screens than in 2017. It’s about one screen per 31 inhabitants. Out [...]

  • Arab Genre Film

    Arab Genre Films Get Boost From Beirut's Maskoon Lab (EXCLUSIVE)

    Just as Netflix tries to gain traction in the Middle East by backing local genre series, such as its first Arab original, “Jinn,” from Jordan, and Egypt’s upcoming “Paranormal,” Beirut’s Maskoon Fantastic Film Festival is launching the region’s first platform dedicated to genre films. Five Arabic-language projects, ranging from a zombie comedy to a supernatural [...]

  • Simon Yam in "Little Q"

    China Box Office: Hong Kong Dog Film 'Little Q' Leads the Pack

    As China gears up for a big political anniversary and national holiday, its box office has been dominated by innocuous animal films and local fare capable of keeping censors happy but unable to make that huge of a splash. None of the top four weekend titles has scored more than 7 out of 10 on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content