“Inventing the Abbotts” is a thoroughly involving if utterly unimportant coming-of-age picture about the complicated relationship between a rich family, the Abbotts, and a lower-middle-class clan, the Holts.
Set in the small town of Haley, Ill., during the late 1950s, the film has nothing especially fresh to say about small-town life, the late ‘50s, coming of age or relations between classes. Yet it handles its well-worn themes with such tact and taste that you find yourself caring about the people in it.
Narrating the story is 15-year-old Doug (Joaquin Phoenix), the shyer and more sensitive of the Holt boys. Doug is unimpressed by the wealth of the Abbotts, which completely obsesses his lady-killer brother, Jacey (Billy Crudup).
Seventeen-year-old Jacey is especially fascinated by the bad-and-beautiful Eleanor Abbott (Jennifer Connelly), whose sisters include the newly engaged Alice (Joanna Going) and the gentle-spirited Pamela (Liv Tyler), a friend of Doug’s. , For Jacey, the fascination with the Abbotts is more than a matter of sex, money or position. His desire to “conquer” Eleanor is caught up with his drive to revenge himself on her father, Lloyd (Will Patton), whom he blames for the death of his father and the social decline of his schoolteacher mother, Helen (Kathy Baker).
The biggest emotional scenes take place off-screen; what we see are the build-ups to them and the aftermaths.
It was much the same in “Circle of Friends” (1995) which, like the new film, concerned small-town life in the ‘50s and was directed by Irish filmmaker Pat O’Connor.
His first stateside effort is a similarly small, fragile movie of similarly small, fragile observations.
Written by Ken Hixon from a story by Sue Miller, “Inventing the Abbotts” boasts an engaging ensemble cast in which the females tend to outshine the males.
But the work of these actors pales somewhat beside Connelly’s vivacious turn as Eleanor, Tyler’s sweetness as Pamela and Baker’s performance as the wonderfully levelheaded Helen.
Still, all the performances help to create a film that is as enjoyable as it is marginal and familiar. You might say that “Inventing the Abbotts” has everything but inventiveness.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “INVENTING THE ABBOTTS” Location: Lyons, Coeur d’Alene Credits: Directed by Pat O’Connor, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Kathy Baker Running time: 1:47 Rating: R