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Inventing the Abbots

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At 19, Liv Tyler has been a daughter to two rock legends (she called Todd Rundgren Dad until she was 10, then learned that Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler is her real father), the center of a feeding frenzy in Cannes, the star of a Bernardo Bertolucci movie, and, according to Tom Hanks, ”the oldest 18-year-old I’ve ever encountered.”

So much life experience; so little that comes through on screen. Tyler is that rare creature who is maturing as an actress without seeming to gain in finesse. She’s starred in six films to date — the latest, Inventing the Abbotts, hits video this week — and while at her worst she’s a pouty-lipped, dead-voiced blank, at her more recent best, unexpectedly rich nuances can float up through the artless perfection of that face.

In Pat O’Connor’s Inventing the Abbotts, she again achieves a lot against long odds: Saddled under late-’50s coiffures and boxy, unflattering dresses, Tyler actually looks dowdy. It’s unclear whether this is intentional; she’s playing the youngest and shyest of the glamorous small-town Abbott sisters (Jennifer Connelly plays the va-va-voom daughter, while Joanna Going is the tormented eldest), but even after Tyler supposedly flowers under the love of kind-but-poor Joaquin Phoenix, she looks like Elizabeth McGovern having a really bad hair day.

Still, she — and, to be fair, Connelly — are the only performers who break through this warmed-over Peyton Place to connect with viewers. A line like ”I was so happy to see you, and then I got so sad. Sad and stupid; it happens sometimes” is pretty dire, but Tyler freights it with an unforced regret that allows you to acknowledge the sentiment as true. There’s nothing actressy about her work, and yet she’s increasingly able to cut straight to the heart of a character’s sadness. Maybe Tyler will start actively honing her art; maybe she’ll take acting lessons and ”refine her instrument.” Maybe we should pray that she doesn’t. C+

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