In his 1995 "Circle of Friends," Irish director Pat O'Connor told the funny, sad, sensitive story of a trio of teenage girls coming of age in 1950s Ireland. It seemed to capture the confusion of the characters and the period just right--the awkward mix of romantic longing and hesitation, of eagerness and fear, of passion and guilt.
O'Connor travels the same road in "Inventing the Abbotts," but this road is in small-town America, and he lost his bearings somewhere on the transatlantic hop. He seems daunted by the American locale, or at least daunted by the detail of the period as relayed in such Hollywood melodramas as "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Peyton Place."
Those films weren't history lessons, they were allegories, one about the growing postwar generation gap, the other about the loosening moral codes in middle-class America. "Inventing the Abbotts" is pointless soap opera, anecdotal and superficial, mixing sibling rivalry, class conflict and tragic romantic entanglements in a style that mimics fictional life in the '50s more than it illuminates what went on.
Adapted by Ken Hixon ("Grandview, U.S.A.") from Sue Miller's short story, "Inventing the Abbotts" is the story of the families Holt and Abbott, the poor and the rich of Haley, Ill., 1957-60. The Holts are the widow schoolteacher Helen (Kathy Baker) and her sons Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug (Joaquin Phoenix). The Abbotts are office-equipment magnate Lloyd (Will Patton), his resigned wife, Joan (Barbara Williams), and their three daughters, Alice (Joanna Going), Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) and Pamela (Liv Tyler).
In the beginning of his nearly nonstop voice-over narration, Doug Holt tells us that his older brother is obsessed with the Abbotts, and as the story unfolds, we learn why. Many years earlier, the family traded a patent for a suspension file drawer to Lloyd Abbott for a 1937 Dodge, which the boys' dad then drove to his death on an ice-covered lake on a daredevil bet. Lloyd, meanwhile, got filthy rich on the Holts' patent, and--if the town's most enduring rumor is true--had a long affair with his widow.
All of which has left Jacey determined to destroy Lloyd, by infiltrating the family through his daughters. First, he has an affair with middle-sister Eleanor, who has already slept with half the senior class of Haley High. Then with the oldest, insecure Alice, after she separates from her husband. And finally, with virginal Pamela.
Each of these triumphs creates its own melodrama, particularly the one over Pamela, who happens to be the girl of Doug's dreams. Doug's relationship with Pamela, from friendship to gawky romance to undying love, is the most promising in the story, but when Jacey's predatory pattern reaches her, it threatens to destroy his own family.
And there you go, as the world turns. . . .
"Inventing the Abbotts" has none of the humor or interludes of exhilaration in "Circle of Friends." The Holt boys and the Abbott girls are despairing enough to lower the morale at the Heartbreak Hotel. Eleanor, played with unself-conscious raunchiness by Connelly, seems to be having a good time until we realize she's only sleeping around to punish her overbearing father.
Given the one-note nature of their characters, the attractive young cast makes this more tolerable than it might be, and Baker has some fine moments as the resilient Helen Holt. But anyone looking for enlightenment about the '50s, or just a little entertainment, would have better luck at the video store.
* MPAA rating: R for sexuality and language. Times guidelines: one graphic sex scene, with brief nudity.
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'Inventing the Abbotts'
Joaquin Phoenix: Doug Holt
Billy Crudup: Jacey Holt
Will Patton: Lloyd Abbott
Kathy Baker: Helen Holt
Jennifer Connelly: Eleanor Abbott
A Imagine Entertainment production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Pat O'Connor. Producers Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Janet Meyers. Screenplay by Ken Hixon, based on a story by Sue Miller. Cinematographer Kenneth MacMillan. Editor Ray Lovejoy. Costumes Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Michael Kamen. Production design Gary Frutkoff. Art director William V. Ryder. Set decorator Kathryn Peters. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
* In general release.