Film actors are generally said to have good chemistry or no chemistry. But bad chemistry in movies does exist, and a sleep-inducer called Inventing the Abbotts is a case in point. In ascending order of age, Liv Tyler, Jennifer Connelly, and Joanna Going play Pamela, Eleanor, and Alice Abbott, well-off sisters whose parties define the teen-age social scene in tiny Haley, Ill.; Joaquin Phoenix and Billy Crudup play Doug and Jacey Holt, the lower-middle-class brothers who make love to them. Jacey & Eleanor & Alice & Doug & Pamela set off various permutations of class-war romance, and the array of talented and eye-catching performers may snag your attention in the TV commercials. A lecherous e-mail pal of mine who watched the ad on Oscar night queried me the next day, "How's Inventing the Abbotts? Or, rather: Is it one of Jennifer Connelly's bad-girl performances? That sweet, innocent face; those incredible hooters."
Well, even Pamela says, "Alice is the good one, Eleanor is the bad one, and I'm the one who gets off the hook." In fact, as Eleanor, Connelly plays one of the juiciest primal scenes from Sue Miller's short story: She straddles Jacey naked and stares straight and sweet at the startled Doug when he stumbles onto their lovemaking. Yet the combination of freshness and sexuality that might have made Tyler, Connelly, and Going perfect sibling casting instead winds up making them monotonous. It's not a question of their acting. Each tries hard to live up to their assigned good, bad, and lucky labels. But their creamy auras overlap; watching them, you feel as if you're drowning in milk. And Phoenix's recessive intensity as the comically clumsy Doug blends drably into Crudup's excessive intensity as the ardent ladies' boy Jacey. They're just the dark crust on the movie's white-bread carnality.
That's partly the fault of the director, Pat O'Connor -- if the small-scale success of 1995's Circle of Friends made him a flavor of the month, that flavor is definitely vanilla. Once again he's doing a youthful '50s romantic drama narrated by a misfit (Minnie Driver in the previous film, Joaquin Phoenix here) who turns out better than all the surrounding teen socialites. Even those more susceptible than I am to this after-school-drama mode of moviemaking may find this example peculiarly denatured. O'Connor makes no obvious false moves -- and no penetrating strokes, either. Alice submits to a loveless marriage for the sake of the Abbotts' proprieties; Eleanor rebels; and Pamela finds her own way by trial and error. Jacey Holt woos Eleanor and then Alice, welcoming the chance to antagonize their frankly upwardly mobile father, Lloyd (Will Patton), an office-file tycoon. The title phrase, "inventing the Abbotts," refers to Jacey's mother's contention that he's so obsessed with the Abbott family -- as a symbol of confidence, rootedness, and position -- that if they didn't exist, he'd have to invent them. Doug, a budding theater artist (a scenic designer), grows to understand Jacey's obsessions and see his and the Abbotts' self-destructiveness. When Doug wins an Abbott gal himself, his emotions are healthy and aboveboard.
The subtlety of American class differences is supposed to raise this film to the status of a conversation piece -- even after Jacey and Doug go to Penn (Pamela, of course goes to Bryn Mawr), Daddy Abbott still considers them declasse. But the subject is nothing new: It's been treated spectacularly well in Hollywood-financed movies as different as the tragic A Place in the Sun and the buoyant Breaking Away. What gives Inventing the Abbotts its (unrealized) dramatic potential is the way the boys' attitudes toward wealth are tied to their contrasting bonds with their hard-working schoolteacher mother, Helen. The casual cruelties of sons to mothers and the resulting difficulties of rapprochement have rarely been explored in American movies. But O'Connor and screenwriter Ken Hixon fritter away the opportunity. They hinge Jacey's wariness of his mother on an unfounded suspicion: that she let Lloyd Abbott seduce her into selling him a file-drawer patent that could have made the Holt family a fortune. (In the story, the emotional fallout from her husband's death engenders the rift between her and Jacey.)
As written and even lit for the big screen, there's something wraithlike about Helen Holt; despite Kathy Baker's rooted skill (she has both sensible shoes on the ground), she can't convey, in the confines of this script, the resolution hidden inside Helen's resignation to a toil-filled small-town life -- the rueful, courageous honesty that I think is Helen's and the story's one real strength. O'Connor and Hixon spend too much of their energies making Miller's tale, which originally appeared in Mademoiselle, seem even more slick-magazine-like, filling it out with boyish vulgarities. At the beginning, the Holt brothers josh that the Abbotts throw a bash every time one of the girls first gets her period -- "Kotex parties," they call them. Inventing the Abbotts is a boys' first romance film; call it a Trojan movie.