After Circle of Friends (1995), Irish director Pat O'Connor has clearly been typecast as a director of nostalgic, wistful, coming-of-age stories covering a moderately large mosaic of characters – a genre that has not been much in favour since the early '70s.
But there is still a little life and soul to be mined in this narrative form, as Inventing the Abbotts proves.
This one starts unpromisingly, with a Wonder Years-type voice-over narration from Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) reflecting ponderously on the usual topics: change, destiny, the getting of wisdom.
O'Connor and writer Ken Hixon fare better when they get down to the nitty-gritty interactions between the members of two very different families: the working-class Holts, comprising Doug, his brother Jacey (Billy Crudup) and mother (Kathy Baker); and the well-to-do Abbotts.
The plot plays like a respectably toned-down version of a Peyton Place-style melodrama from the '50s. The entire tale revolves around the trauma of cross-class sexual couplings, permutated between the two Holt boys and the three Abbott girls.
Pamela (Liv Tyler) explains that while Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) is the bad girl and her older sister the obedient daughter, she herself continually "gets off the hook". Her intermediate position makes her, eventually, the moral centre of the film.
Inventing the Abbotts is only secondarily a story of young love with its joys and pains. Everyone's sex-drive (especially Jacey's) seems fuelled by socially defined resentments, grudges, feuds and desperate ambitions.
The circle of pertinent liaisons eventually expands to include the rumoured past affair between Mrs Holt and Mr Abbott (Will Patton). The reckless moments of the past, and the misunderstandings to which they gave rise, are crucial to the store of unfinished business that weighs heavily on all characters.
The film's psychological acuity and its occasionally dark moodiness are its best attributes. But near the end, some of its more schematic, thematically-pointed plot moves are terribly contrived, and O'Connor's direction is often funereal when it should be light.
Most damaging of all, even though some of the performances (particularly Baker's) are quite superb, there is very little sense of an ensemble. The chemistry between Phoenix and Tyler is almost non-existent.
Nonetheless, Inventing the Abbotts is worth a serious look.
© Adrian Martin June 1997