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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 04/03/1997, B: >A Tickle in the Heart, A: >A Tickle in the Heart,

Inventing the Abbotts

ALT= "[Inventing The Abbots]" align=right width=225 height=155 hspace=15 vspace=5> Adapted from the novel by local writer Sue Miller, Inventing the Abbotts is kind of a genial, distaff '50s version of East of Eden. The intrusive and persistent voiceover narration from an older and wiser Doug Holt (Joaquin Phoenix) tends to smooth over the rough edges of the human mystery with well-brushed, retrospective platitudes. "My mother always said," he begins, "that if the Abbotts didn't exist, my brother would have to invent them." That aura of gratuitous invention never quite leaves Abbotts.

The brother is Jacey (Billy Crudup), older, suaver, and more embittered than the feckless and anarchic Doug, the ambitions of both constrained by their blue-collar status and the hypocrisies of their Illinois hometown. Jacey's solution is, as paterfamilias Lloyd Abbott (a charmingly reptilian Will Patton) puts it, to stick his "poor boy dick" into each of his daughters: promiscuous Eleanor (Jennifer Connelly), tractable Alice (Joanna Going), and hoydenish Pamela (Liv Tyler). Doug's at first platonic, later ardent attraction to Pamela (it makes sense, since Phoenix and Tyler both have strange lips and mumble a lot) brings the brothers' sibling rivalry to a crisis.

The film strains to account for Jacey's misogynistic and Cain-like perversity -- their widowed mom (Kathy Baker) was rumored to have an affair with Lloyd Abbott and to have disenfranchised the family of its patrimony by giving Abbott the patent to her late husband's soon-to-be lucrative invention of a better filing cabinet drawer. More convincing are spontaneous moments of genuine, loopy behavior, such as Doug's catastrophic attempt to look up Eleanor's dress in the library by means of the old dropped-pencil ploy, or his jaunt down the street at the end of an Abbott party, igniting trashcans as he passes.

This is a defining performance for Phoenix, who acknowledges his influences early on when he poses before portraits of Elvis and James Dean while inking in his own sideburns. Crudup is Dean-like in a darker, more delimited way, and their many scenes together simmer and break out too often into fistfights. Directed with stolid assurance and occasional inspiration by Pat O'Connor (Circle of Friends), Abbotts works best when it isn't inventing but instead takes a closer look at what's already there. At the Nickelodeon, the Fresh Pond, and the Chestnut Hill and in the suburbs.

-- Peter Keough