Bonneville

Starring Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Joan Allen and Tom Skerritt. Directed by Christopher N. Rowley
Running Time: 93mins
Rated: Rated PG (Infrequent mild coarse language)

The Bonneville of the title is a 1966 automobile (genus Pontiac), one of those massive V8 convertibles that defined American cars in the days when petrol was a pittance. It is driven by three women on an odyssey from Pocatello Idaho to California to deliver an urn of ashes to a funeral service.

The ashes belong to Joe Holden, an inveterate traveller who owned the car. His widow, Arvilla (Jessica Lange), shared his love of the open road and is set to honour his last wishes and scatter his remains in places they had visited. But she runs foul of Francine (Christine Baranski), the daughter from Joe's first marriage who wants her father to rest in the grave next to her mother in California. The second wife does not find this prospect enticing, but Francine threatens to evict Arvilla from the house if she doesn't agree.

So reluctantly Arvilla sets off in Joe's beloved Bonneville accompanied by her two best friends, boisterous Margene (Kathy Bates) and prim, conservative Carol (Joan Allen), to transport Joe to the west coast. It's a meandering trip along the highways and back roads, stopping at little diners with names such as Kozy Café, visiting canyon and desert, having a fling in Las Vegas, getting a flat tyre on remote salt flats and renting a houseboat for a night on a lake.

Everywhere they go it is picturesque and photogenic, as befits any good road picture, and along the way they meet up with Bo (Victor Rasuk), a Mexican lad hitch-hiking his way home to a family reunion, and Emmett Johnson (Tom Skerritt), a widower truckie who takes a fancy to one of the trio.

Writer Daniel D. Davis drew on his own family for the characters, even retaining their names: Arvilla was his grandmother, Carol was his aunt and Margene was their close friend. And they did live in Pocatello Idaho. His story, dedicated to the proposition that everyone should have a big adventure, is always affectionate and life-affirming.

We should be grateful that it gives Lange, Bates and Allen, three fine American actresses of a certain age, the chance to work together, and they are well worth watching. The trouble is, a first-time writer and director (Christopher N. Rowley) lack the experience to capitalise on either the concept or their featured trio. Too much of the script and acting is allowed to descend to soap opera standard, and moments of vitality (mostly attributable to the interplay between the three leads) give way to sequences of leaden predictability (the Las Vegas casino episode a case in point). Neither Rasuk not Skerritt seems comfortable with his role, and the central plot would have worked better if Baranski had been instructed to play the step-daughter Francine less like the Wicked Witch of the West.

But the travelogue component (full credit to cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball) plus the performances of the three stars make it an amiable, if unexhilarating, experience.

Icon Out August 28

Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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