Inventing the Abbotts (1997)

(Romantic small-town drama)

A throwback to yesteryear's small-town dramas, Pat O'Connor's Inventing the Abbots 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 straightlaced 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, comprised of up-and-coming actors like Liv Tyler, Billy Crudup and Joaquin Phoenix.

Pat O'Connor, whose last film, Circle of Friends (also set in the l950s), was a sleeper, is the perfect director to evoke this rural past, for as was evident in previous movies, he is an efficient scene-setter who pays meticulous attention to the smallest narrative detail. At the same time, while one appreciates the filmmakers' 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 much that the new film is too respectful of its material, lacking humor, irony, or detachment.

Evoking such American chestnuts as East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass, The Last Picture Show, Racing With the Moon 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 class spectrum.

Story begins with a big 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 (Tyler) tells her poor friend, Doug Holt (Phoenix), “Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) is the bad one, and I'm the one who gets off the hook.” Though belonging to divergent 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 (Crudup), who upon graduation from high school plans to attend the University 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 rich patriarch Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton). Jacey has carried a chip on his shoulder ever since his father died in a obscure lake accident, still resenting the fact that his mother, Helen (Kathy Baker), had apparently sold his dad's patent for the full suspension file drawer to Lloyd.

In the manner of many Hollywood small-town sagas, the town of Haley, Illinois is burdened with scandals of the past, primarily 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 siblings rivalry, the romantic affairs of–and complicated interactions among–its quintet of characters. Not surprisingly, Jacey, the handsome brother, eventually beds all three sisters, and 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, a picture that 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 Hixon also demonstrates vividly how the past impinges on the present, or more specifically how misunderstandings of the past have damaging effects on one's identity and perception of reality.

The entire ensemble is uniformly good, and though Tyler and Phoenix are a bit too old to play 15-year-old adolescents, endowed with the meatiest parts, both performers render sensitive performances. Crudup, one of Hollywood's hottest young actors, also stands out, playing a variation of a role, the misunderstood rebel-hunk, 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.

Though well-directed, the pacing is too slow and unexciting until the last couple of chapters, when the revelations of past mysteries are disclosed. Tech credits, particularly sharp lensing of Kenneth MacMillan, O'Connor's longtime collaborator, are pro across the board.

Credits

A 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 Nixon, based on Sue Miller's story. 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.

MPAA Rating: R.
Running time: 110 min.

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