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Inventing the '50s

Have you heard? In the 1950s, much of America--particularly the typical small town in the Midwest--was sexually repressed and stupidly class-conscious. Many marriages were long-suffering disasters, and goods were often more important than feelings.

But the emergence of Elvis, college enrollment for women and the simmering rebellion of youth signaled the dawn of a new day.

Pat O'Connor's Inventing the Abbotts reveals all this as if movie audiences were born yesterday. As if Rebel Without a Cause, A Summer Place and The Last Picture Show had never been made and Jack Kerouac had never sat down at his Smith-Corona. Through a jolt of smug knowingness, the film means to educate us about the social realities of a time long gone and little lamented.

Thanks, but this isn't exactly page-one news--not even for today's seventeen-year-olds.

The Sue Miller story from which Abbotts is taken is sharp and observant, so read it if you have a mind. Meanwhile, Ken Hixon's screenplay insists on dumbing down everything even as it strikes a high-art, know-it-all pose. The trio of teenaged goddesses of the title--frightened, conventional Alice (Joanna Going), defiant, naughty Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) and sweet, truehearted Pam (Liv Tyler)--are now reduced to caricatures straight out of the lock-up-your-daughters school of domestic storytelling. The yearning boys from the wrong side of the tracks--suave, devious, envious Jacey Holt (Billy Crudup) and his sweet, truehearted younger brother, Doug (Joaquin Phoenix)--are now comic-strip figures depicting hormones run amok in the fictional town of Haley, Illinois.

We've also got the boys' self-sacrificial widowed mother (Kathy Baker), who's grown so wise by 1957 that she even knows how to ask her son please not to screw out in the garage anymore. And the Abbott girls' bastard of a father. "Keep your poor-boy dick out of my daughters," status-conscious Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton) yells at Jacey Holt. Egads. What would Ozzie and Harriet think? In any case, Jacey isn't listening. Because of some dark secrets supposedly shared by both families, he's obsessed with those rich Abbott girls and, because of the demons running around inside his head, intends to bring all three of them low.

Of course, director O'Connor (Circle of Friends) makes him look pretty good while he's doing it. This is Hollywood, isn't it?

The Romeo and Juliet theme inside this movie shouldn't have failed, but writer and director beat it to death. The Cain versus Abel brand of sibling rivalry we get here needn't have fallen apart, either, but the moviemakers are so sure we won't get it that they stage two fights between brothers and two ping-pong games. A fresh, offbeat view of carnality and social class in the 1950s might even have been possible here--just ask Ms. Miller--but that chance gets lost, too, in a jangle of superficial dialogue and squandered nuance.

Says Mom Holt gravely, lamenting her older son's ruined fate: "There's no end of Abbotts in this world, if that's what you need." Good God. Let's hope she's wrong and they don't shoot a sequel.

--Gallo

Inventing the Abbotts.
Screenplay by Ken Hixon, from a story by Sue Miller. Directed by Pat O'Connor. With Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler, Joanna Going and Kathy Baker.

 
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