Inventing the Abbotts is a nice period piece that doesn’t reach too far back into the past. The setting is Haley, Illinois, 1957 and great care was taken to get the look and feel of that time and place.
The scenery doesn’t just set the time and place. It defines a world in which the movie can take place. In a worse movie, we could see that the year was 1957, with a vintage car here, a haircut there. Inventing the Abbotts instead goes to great lengths to bring us to the world of 1957. Production Designer Gary Frutkoff deserves credit for making “Illinois, 1957” into a real place and time.
For example, at the high school, the parking lot is full of cars. Not just a car here or there, but lots of them. One of the characters works at a gas station. We don’t just see the building and then lots of closeups; the garage is filled with vintage equipment. There are one or two long shots of wide-open fields or a silo and a barn, which, without any specific reference, somehow evoke an America of the past.
Set against this backdrop is the story of the Holts and the Abbotts, a story a bit like Romeo and Juliet. The Holt family (the Montagues, if you will) is middle class. Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) and his older brother Jacey (Billy Crudup) live with their mom (Kathy Baker). Their neighbors, the Abbotts (or the Capulets), are at the pinnacle of Haley society and they are always throwing some sort of big party for one of the Abbott girls.
There is some unspoken tension between the families, but all the kids are at least on speaking terms and their paths often cross at the high school. Jacey starts courting Eleanor Abbott during his last year of high school. Mr. Abbott frowns on their relationship, and when he learns the youths have been having sex, he sends Eleanor away.
The tension between the families grows until Jacey is persona non grata at the Abbott parties.
All of this proves to be very difficult for the youngest siblings, Doug Holt (our Romeo) and Pamela Abbott (our Juliet). Doug and Pam are not passionately in love with each other, but they do have a relationship. When the families start drifting apart because of the behavior of the older siblings, the fallout lands squarely on the younger siblings, who, though disappointed, handle the situation with dispassionate acceptance.
The characters in Inventing the Abbotts are well defined. Doug and Jacey look, act, and dress like brothers until each grows up and becomes his own man. (There is a scene of the two brothers fighting about their individuality. Each is wearing a white shirt and dark pants, and in all the commotion, we can’t tell which one is which.) Mrs. Holt is one of the wisest mothers to grace a movie screen. Each of the Abbott girls has a distinct personality. We can easily see each character’s role within his or her family and how each family fits into the social order of the town.
The story has as much action as any romantic comedy, but in addition the plot is advanced by revelations of information that some of the characters have always known, but that we the audience (and other characters) aren’t privy to right away. This is a great device for keeping up a movie’s pace and for giving the audience a fresh perspective on the action and the characters. This technique was used extremely well in Secrets & Lies.
There were only a few things I disliked about Inventing the Abbotts. One is the title. Much was made of the title; characters hypothesized that if the Abbotts didn’t exist, Jacey would have invented them. This whole notion felt forced somehow. Jacey was rebellious and sex-driven, but this story would have been completely different with another family. I understand the point but it doesn’t seem strong enough to make the title.
Another was that the movie started going in several different directions near the end. I suppose life was getting more confusing for the characters, but after a certain point more plot twists and conflict just get in the way of finishing the story.
I had low expectations for this movie. I anticipated that it was going to be a gray ‘50s drama-comedy with nobody in it. Even afterwards, these expectations color my view of the movie, and I tend to think more about the confused ending than about the great shots and the subtle comparison to Romeo and Juliet.
But objectively, I can see that it is well made, well written, and well designed. Maybe this movie will prove to be just average on a second viewing, but it does deserve a second viewing.