Directed by Pat O'Conner

Starring Liv Tyler, Joaquin Phoenix, Billy Crudup, Jennifer Connelly, Joanna Going, Will Patton & Kathy Baker.

"Inventing the Abbotts"

Opened: April 4, 1997 | Rated: R

As nostalgic, post-pubescent angst pictures go, "Inventing the Abbotts" strikes the same disillusioned chord as "The Last Picture Show" -- it is a portrait of the complicated sexual politics going on behind the closed doors and porcelain masks of two '50s families that are far more carnal than they pretend.

With the feel of a dime novel written by a misty, teenage Tennessee Williams, every character is sympathetic in their own way, and each of them deceivingly simple. But once you know each one's signature personality trait you could miss the middle hour of the movie and not miss a thing.

Though the movie covers quite trodden territory (the influence of everything from "Picnic" to "Porky's" can be felt), the familiarity of "Inventing the Abbotts" never becomes grating for one reason: inspired casting.

The blue-collar Holt brothers -- Don Juan-ish Jacey (Billy Crudup) and shy, romantic Doug (Joaquin Phoenix) -- both have a predilection for the upper-crust Abbott girls -- obedient Alice (Joanna Going), rebellious tart Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly) and coy Pam (Liv Tyler).

Mr. Abbott (Will Patton) doesn't think much of the greasy Holt boys, despite some vague past business partnership with their deceased father. But he was at one time rather keen on their mom (Kathy Baker), it seems.

Mrs. Abbott (Barbara Williams) raised a ruckus in town some years back about the amount of time Mr. Abbott was spending with the newly widowed Mrs. Holt and after that the Holts were effectively shunned from friendship with the country club set.

With me so far? OK.

So the Abbotts have a lot of parties. The Holt boys sneak into the parties and variously seduce (Jacey) and befriend (Doug) one or more of the Abbott girls.

As narrated by Doug, "Inventing the Abbotts" covers some ground pretty quickly (Eleanor is packed off in the second reel after being caught in the shrubs with Jacey) and takes it's time elsewhere (Doug and Pam slowly form a tentative friendship while never truly acknowledging their mutual ardor). But on an even keel throughout the picture is the empathy each character inspires.

Phoenix effectively shows us Doug's cautious heart. Getting over her flavor-of-the-month status, Tyler plays Pam as constantly feeling caught in the shadow of her sisters. Jacey (Crudup) is like Brick in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," all denial and pent-up hostility.

Director Pat O'Conner ("Circle of Friends") seems to have a knack for characters that hide their feelings and for this period in time. His picture has an uncanny sense of place and does a fine Pavlovian job of inciting emotions, but it's the acting that takes "Inventing the Abbotts" beyond it's pedestrian script.

As the focus falls on Doug and Pam, we know full well where the relationship is headed long before they do, but the interest remains because the actors make us care.

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