[; February 29, 2008]

[Cast: Jessica Lange (Arvilla), Kathy Bates (Margene), Joan Allen (Carol), Tom Skerritt (Emmett), Christine Baranaski (Francine)]

Oh boy, a movie about a 1966 Bonneville convertible! That’s the car my sisters and I learned to drive on. Ours was silver with a black interior, purchased brand-new off the showroom floor with every possible extra. We called it the Batmobile. It’s in retirement at Louisa’s place now, but I like to think of it as resting up.

I went to see the cinematic “Bonneville” filled with hopeful nostalgia, but, I regret to say, it’s a really crummy movie. Though the car appears in the film, it’s mere eye candy for a story about three middle-aged women (“middle,” that is, if you know lots of 120-year-olds). They’re using the spiffy vehicle to make a road trip from Pocatello, Idaho to Santa Barbara, California. Though road-trip movies have been overdone, it could still have been enjoyable, especially as a comedy retaining down-to-earth, wisecracking Kathy Bates. But “Bonneville” is also burdened with a *serious* plot element, one that feels contrived and manipulative.

It’s that Arvilla has just lost her husband, Joe. After his retirement, Joe became an adventurous traveler, and began taking Arvilla around the world. Death came while they were on a trip to Borneo. As the story opens we see Arvilla coming home in a taxi, clutching a container of Joe’s ashes. She had made him a promise to scatter them, the where and how left unspecified.

But Joe has a daughter from his first marriage, Francine, who feels strongly that he should be buried next to her mother, in the family plot in California. She offers Arvilla a deal: turn over the ashes by the time of the memorial service next week, and I won’t sell this house. (The house was left to Francine in a pre-Arvilla will, and a theoretical later will amending that can’t be found.)

Since the unseen Joe looms large throughout the film, what kind of guy was he? Francine tells Arvilla that perhaps Joe never made a new will, since there were many things he said he’d do but never got around to, like moving to where he could be part of his grandchildren’s lives. Later we learn that Joe had programmed Arvilla’s phone so that a call from Francine would trigger the sound of a screaming raptor. Pretty hostile behavior, and there’s no obvious reason why Francine deserves it. Apparently she is Joe’s only child.

There’s also something creepy in the fact that Arvilla has placed his ashes in a pottery jar Joe purchased on one of his travels, one that had originally held the hearts of human sacrifices. Later, Margene recalls the time Joe gave her a gift of a shrunken head. My guess is that a shrunken head makes a hilarious gift only if it’s not Caucasian. If it were, it would be too obvious that you are holding the decapitated head of a young woman, say, or a child, or even an old man like Joe.

The film gives away this alternate view completely against its will. We are herded toward thinking that Francine must be in the wrong, because she’s uptight and wealthy. (How wealthy? One day we see her and her husband playing tennis next to the porch of their home; the next day, the view from the porch shows a swimming pool. Wow.) Her father is presented as her opposite, an adventurous free spirit who won’t be chained to the expectations of narrow, proper people.

Does that sound familiar? It’s the same narrative Baby Boomers internalized decades ago, when “narrow, proper people” meant their parents. Now that those foils are fast disappearing, Boomers are swinging around to paste the label on their children. (Another Jessica Lange film, “Big Fish,” preaches the same sermon.) Once a rebel, always a rebel, even if you have to invent someone to rebel against.

From the moment that Arvilla and her friends Margene and Carol hit the road, I knew exactly what was going to happen [SPOILER ALERT]: Arvilla would go ahead and scatter Joe’s ashes, and fool Francine by handing her a jar containing ashes of some other kind. I didn’t foresee exactly what those ashes would be, and it is a moment of piercing cruelty—if you see Francine as a real, grieving person, that is. But “Bonneville” is determined you’ll see things only from its jerryrigged perspective.

“Bonneville” does have its bright points: Kathy Bates is operating in a different, more authentic universe than the rest of the cast, and provides some genuine laughs. The color scheme of the movie is consistently attractive, too, if unrealistic (when the women are in an autumn environment, they wear harmonizing outfits of orange, brown, and khaki green; when they’re at the beach, they’re all in white, beige, and light blue. And I sure don’t think the ’66 Bonneville came in burnt orange.) Joe’s ashes have gotten the Hollywood treatment, too. My husband, a pastor, has had occasion to deal with cremated remains (“cremains,” in the funeral industry’s cute little euphemism). What Arvilla keeps tenderly releasing to the wind is ashy and fine as dust; what you’d be more likely to see, on looking into the shoe-box-sized container, would be dried, pulverized bone, with some chips disconcertingly larger than others.

The visual center of the drama is Jessica Lange’s face, and unfortunately she’s had that thing done where the zone from eyebrows to cheekbones has been ironed out sideways with extra starch. You’d think any actor would especially prize and protect control of the myriad subtle muscles around the eyes, but this surgery pins everything back so tightly that the eyes look taut and masked. The rest of Lange’s still-lovely face is soft and believable, and it’s a shame she didn’t leave well enough alone. She’s an actress of substance, with two Oscars on her mantelpiece, and could have easily sold us on the beauty of a natural older face. This surgery doesn’t even deliver what it promises: it doesn’t make anybody look young, just weird.

“Bonneville” seems carefully constructed to get older women to come out to the movie theater, and self-consciously adorable “Red Hat” ladies will eat it up. They may be able to bring some men with them, with the car providing catnip for the guys the way Brad Pitt did for female viewers in “Troy.” For anybody else, the film is a bust. The ’66 Bonneville was a great car, but these talented ladies deserved a better vehicle.

Talk About It:

1. For every movie about breaking free from authority and being true to yourself, there’s a movie about loyalty to friends and family no matter what. Why are we so ambivalent about commitment? How can we know God’s calling in these situations?

2. Scripture teaches that we must not favor either the rich or the poor (Leviticus 19:15, “You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great”). We know well that we should be kind and compassionate toward the poor. But how should we treat the rich?

3. Early Christians associated the burning of a body with desecration; burning was for garbage. Christ’s incarnation and bodily Resurrection taught, on the contrary, that the body was worthy of honor (in sharp contrast to Gnostics, who regarded the material world with contempt). Should Christians prefer to bury a body intact? Or is cremation as valid an option?

About Frederica Mathewes-Green

Frederica Mathewes-Green is a wide-ranging author who has published 10 books and 800 essays, in such diverse publications as the Washington Post, Christianity Today, Smithsonian, and the Wall Street Journal. She has been a regular commentator for National Public Radio (NPR), a columnist for the Religion News Service,, and Christianity Today, and a podcaster for Ancient Faith Radio. (She was also a consultant for Veggie Tales.) She has published 10 books, and has appeared as a speaker over 600 times, at places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Wellesley, Cornell, Calvin, Baylor, and Westmont, and received a Doctor of Letters (honorary) from King University. She has been interviewed over 700 times, on venues like PrimeTime Live, the 700 Club, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. She lives with her husband, the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, in Johnson City, TN. Their three children are grown and married, and they have fourteen grandchildren.

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