Period film: Inventing the Abbotts (1997)

J.C. (Billy Crudup) and Doug Holt (Joaquin Phoenix) are from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Outcasts in a town full of people living the “American Dream” in the late 1950s, the boys have been raised by a working, single mother (Kathy Baker). Their father lost his life during a period of conflict with his business partner, Lloyd Abbott (Will Patton), who has since become the wealthiest man in town.

J.C. is embarrassed of Doug, who seems obsessed with being “hip” and draws on sideburns so he can look like Elvis. The brothers don’t have much in common, but they do share two interests: table tennis, and the three beautiful daughters of Lloyd Abbott: Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), Pamela (Liv Tyler) and Alice (Joanna Going).

(Image via
(Image via

Wanting revenge for his father’s death, J.C. comes up with a plan to seduce Eleanor, and the lives of the two families become sloppily entangled as the years pass.

Pat O’Connor directs 1997’s Inventing the Abbotts. This mid-century period piece was written by Ken Hixon from a short story of the same name by Sue Miller.

Inventing the Abbotts has a pretty stellar cast, though they’re not all totally buyable as characters living in the 1950s. Like many period films produced in the 1990s, this film blends ’50s aesthetics with characters who seem transported into the period from the ’90s, thanks to their style of dialogue delivery. Though the cast is talented and their performances are solid, they all seem like late-20th century people playing mid-20th century dress-up rather than lending the film a sense of authenticity.

(Image via Media Lopek)
(Image via Media Lopek)

Crudup is probably the most convincing of the bunch in his role of J.C. However, the film’s strongest asset in terms of the cast is the chemistry between Liv Tyler and Joaquin Phoenix. The relationship between their characters was my favorite part of the story to watch.

Phoenix’s character of Doug is the most interesting. While his brother is driven by revenge in the name of their father, Doug never knew the man. Their father died a month before Doug was born, so he doesn’t have the same investment in bringing down the Abbotts that J.C. has and doesn’t really understand his brother. Instead, he’s just desperate to find himself and to fit in. We also get more insight into his perspective on the events than the other characters, because future-Doug narrates the film.

The set design and costumes are generally quite nice, capturing the period much better than the characters do.

Inventing the Abbotts has a couple of over-dramatic moments but is generally quite a mellow film. It tells a decently-engrossing story and has some interesting character dynamics. It certainly isn’t the greatest mid-century-set period film I’ve watched – nowhere near that – but it’s worth a watch. The score: 3/5


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