Being dubbed some of ”Hollywood’s hottest young stars” in promotional materials for their own movie is no bonus. In INVENTING THE ABBOTTS (Twentieth Century Fox, R), based on a short story by Sue Miller (The Good Mother), what ”hot” means is that in the eagerness to showcase a party of five starlets, a nice coming-of-age drama set in the Midwest in the late 1950s loses any real sense of the political, sexual, and cultural influences affecting the Midwest in the late 1950s. What ”hot” means is that a glib 1990s commercial romanticism substitutes for the kind of emotional and sociological depth that often reveals itself when domestic dramas are made with less emphasis on ensemble beauty and more on character interaction.

At the emotional heart of the story is the relationship between 17-year-old Jacey Holt (Billy Crudup) and his 15-year-old brother, Doug (Joaquin Phoenix), who live with their widowed mother (Picket Fences‘ always-reassuring Kathy Baker, made to spend far too much time putting on or taking off aprons) in fictional Haley, Ill., in the symbolic shadow cast by the fancy house of the town’s wealthy Abbott family. Restless Jacey bears an old grudge toward the senior Abbotts: Dad and Mr. Abbott (Will Patton) were old friends and business partners, and Jacey believes his widowed mom was cheated out of future profits by selling out far too cheaply. (Town gossip has it, too, that in her bereavement, Mrs. H. once had an adulterous affair with Mr. A.) Jacey takes his anger out in a cold sexual pursuit of the three Abbott daughters. Reflective Doug, meanwhile, who narrates the story, is more sanguine but no less intrigued by his rich neighbors, and bound up, as well, in competition with his older brother.

The rivalry between the two young men and the differences in their relationships with the Abbott girls as an expression of their coalescing adult personalities is a premise full of cinematic possibilities. But Crudup (Everyone Says I Love You) and Phoenix (To Die For), each generating only enough energy to light their own speeches, are barely distinguishable in style or manner; they’re no match for, say, Party of Five‘s Matthew Fox and Scott Wolf. This leaves the locomotion up to the young women, none of whom appear long enough to build up any momentum. As the good-girl oldest, Joanna Going (Nixon) armors herself in the same brittle prettiness that keeps Courteney Cox from ever thawing out; as the sensitive youngest daughter with the best chance of breaking free, Liv Tyler (Stealing Beauty, That Thing You Do!) is lovely and pliant, but still unbaked. (Tyler’s dewy openness is still her greatest asset, but her career longevity will depend on what she ripens and opens up to.)

The only real heat among the group comes from Jennifer Connelly (Mulholland Falls), who, as the bad-girl middle daughter, raises the stakes any time she’s on screen. But Connelly exits early — and with her, any of the sexual tension that presumably fueled these young people’s days and nights. (”Keep your poor-boy d— out of my daughters!” Papa Abbott bellows at Jacey, in one of screenwriter Ken Hixon’s less felicitous lines.)

Inventing the Abbotts is the work of Irish director Pat O’Connor, who did well by the same era (and actress Minnie Driver) in adapting Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends. But O’Connor has more trouble conjuring up 1957 Midwestern America than late-’50s rural Ireland and Dublin. Possibly this is because the production was partly shot in and around Northern California, and looks it. (Who knew flat old Illinois looked like wine country?) Or maybe it’s because the town and countryside are so silent, so static, and so devoid of other human beings rock & rolling their way toward the sexual liberation of the 1960s that the action might as well be taking place on the kind of stage for which, when he gets to college, Doug creates set designs. The Abbotts stage is set for soliloquies. And all the men and women in Haley, Ill., are merely players. C+

Inventing the Abbotts
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