Inventing the Abbotts
Screenplay : Ken Hixon (based on a story by Sue Miller)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Joaquin Phoenix (Doug Holt), Billy Crudup (Jacey Holt), Liv Tyler (Pamela Abbott), Will Patton (Lloyd Abbott), Kathy Baker (Helen Holt), Jennifer Connelly (Eleanor Abbott), Joanna Going (Alice Abbott), Barbara Williams (Joan Abbott), Michael Keaton (Narrator)
In every small town, there is an Abbott family. You know, the one family in town that's rich, and has always been rich. They are the people that wield power because everyone is so fascinated with them. They are almost like celebrities, in that people always wonder what they are doing, never think to doubt what they say, and never entertain the thought that there could be anything wrong with their lives.
In Pat O'Connor's "Inventing the Abbotts," the Abbotts are the center of the small town of Haley, Illinois in the mid-fifties. From the outside, their house and trimmed green lawns are the essence of perfection; meanwhile, turmoil rages inside, unseen. The mother (Barbara Williams) and father (Will Patton) are socialites who are always throwing grand parties for any occasion, yet they seemed removed from it all. They have three daughters: the oldest, Alice (Joanna Going)is shallow and social like her parents, and like them, marries for convenience and parental acceptance rather than love; Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), the middle child, is a girl who will carelessly sleep with any boy if she thinks it will upset her father; and Pam (Liv Tyler), the youngest, is a shy, quiet girl caught between them.
The film details the interweaving relations between the Abbotts and another family, the Holts. The Holts are a working, middle class family comprised of a single mother, Helen (Kathy Baker) and her two sons, Jacey (Billy Crudup) and Doug (Joaquin Phoenix). Their father died before Doug was born, and therefore they have had to work hard to have a quarter of what the Abbotts have always had and probably always will.
Jacey is assured and handsome, but all his life he has been obsessed with the Abbott family. His mother often tells him that if the Abbotts hadn't existed, he would have had to invent them. There is reason behind his fixation with the Abbotts, and the plot slowly draws out this thread, allowing it to be a string that links together most of the events.
Because Jacey is so enthralled with the Abbotts, he has no bones about sleeping with Eleanor, even though he knows she's using him because her overtly stern father couldn't stand the idea of her sleeping with someone in a lower social class. It does the trick, which simply adds to the tension that already exists between the Holts and the Abbotts, making life that much more difficult for everyone. Of course, that doesn't stop him from making a move when Alice is in the middle of a divorce.
Doug is a far cry from Jacey In some ways, Doug reminded me of the character of Pony Boy in "The Outsiders," another character who was sensitive and modest, but sometimes felt the need to act otherwise. Phoenix, younger brother of the later River Phoenix, does an amiable job of bringing Doug to life, although he sometimes feels a bit dull in comparison to his assertive, but crude older brother. Phoenix first made a splash in 1989's "Parenthood," as an introverted and very confused twelve-year-old. Here, is a slightly less introverted and confused eighteen-year-old, but the feelings are still there.
Much of the film is given to the relationship between Doug and Pam. They are drawn together because they are both different from their siblings. Pam doesn't feel comfortable in her rich family, and at one point she complains to Doug that she wishes he would stop treating her like an Abbott. "My father's rich," she says. "I'm not." When Doug tries to go too far with her sexually, Pam stops him and tells him simply, "I don't want to be like my sister. Not if I can help it."
Like so many young romances, Doug and Pam start as buddies, bickering and fighting as a means to hide their mutual attraction, until they eventually shed their exteriors and admit what they've secretly known for too long. Their relationship is well-developed and often bittersweet; it is the core of the tale, the grounding middle that helps take our mind off the hopeless, adolescent stupidity of all the characters around them, both teenagers and adults.
While "Inventing the Abbotts" is an often affecting piece of work, it suffers from a number of ailments. Like other nostalgic movies such as "Summer of '42," it relies heavily on voice-over narration (from Michael Keaton). Because he is the solid center, Doug narrates the film, but with an older voice and a wiser point of view than what we see on screen. This is a time-worn device, where we get to watch the immature character doing, while listening to the same character, aged and experienced, explaining in hindsight. This way, despite what is happening before our eyes, the narrator's tone assures us that everything will work out. It relieves us of too much worrying.
The film was directed by Pat O'Connor, who did a wonderful job with 1995's "Circle of Friends," a film filled with similar subject matter. In that film, he also dealt with betrayal, sexual awakening, and the pains of growing up. One of O'Connor's strengths with this kind of material is that doesn't go overboard with the period detail. It is obviously the late fifties, but he doesn't saturate the screen with artifacts, especially overbearing period music. Most of the weak spots in "Inventing the Abbotts" are instead caused by the script, written by Ken Hixon, which was based on a story by Sue Miller.
Simply stated, too many of the plot elements are obviously just that: plot elements. Characters surface at just the right time to shed light on past events or evoke an emotion from another character. Some of the occurrences are just a little too convenient, and the story ends up feeling overly manipulated and contrived. And when the climatic betrayal occurs between several main characters, it is so obviously against character type that it throws the whole story off-balance.
Nevertheless, "Inventing the Abbotts" has its strengths, which shouldn't be ignored. It is rare to find a film that treats teenagers and young adults as real people who think for themselves, and own up to their mistakes. Doug and Pam are two such characters, and because of their validity as people, the film as a whole is able to overcome its internal flaws.
©1997 James Kendrick