Inventing the Abbotts [1997]

A showcase for bright young stars, Inventing the Abbotts aspires to be the kind of 1950s melodrama--like Splendor in the Grass--that was perfected by directors like Elia Kazan and Douglas Sirk. Calling on the strength of his earlier Circle of Friends, Irish director Pat O'Connor brings many of that film's admirable qualities to this similar ensemble piece (set in late-'50s Illinois), but it's held together by looser and weaker threads. And yet this tale of class division and forbidden love is sensitively written and beautifully filmed, highlighted by two young lovers at the center of an interfamilial conflict. "Alice is the good daughter, Eleanor's the bad one, and I'm the one that just sorta gets off the hook." That's how rich girl Pam Abbott (Liv Tyler) describes herself and her older siblings (Joanna Going and Jennifer Connelly, respectively), whose father made his fortune in manufacturing. Working-class neighbor Jacey Holt (Billy Crudup) has "invented" Mr. Abbott as a villain whose wealth came at the Holts' expense and destroyed the reputation of Jacey's widowed mom (Kathy Baker in a fine but underwritten role). Jacey retaliates by callously bedding each Abbott sister in sequence, but his destructive behavior is countered by younger brother Doug (Joaquin Phoenix), whose love for Pam is sweetly genuine. Memorable scenes abound, and the film's period design is impeccable, but sluggish pacing and filigrees of plot make Inventing the Abbotts a faint echo of its '50s predecessors. The fine cast makes it worthwhile, however, and Michael Keaton's (uncredited) narration adds another layer of retrospective charm. --Jeff Shannon

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