Bonneville, opening today in limited release after mostly sitting and stewing in its own juices since it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival way back in 2006, is another of those "do this before you die" flicks, melded with a road trip movie for spunky older chicks. Take the "great older actor" Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson roles in The Bucket List, replace them with a trio of "great older actresses" in the form of Kathy Bates, Joan Allen and Jessica Lange, throw them in an old Bonneville convertible for a road trip, and toss in the ruggedly handsome and ever-reliable Tom Skerritt as a love interest, and you've got all the makings of a flick that practically telegraphs being aimed at the older demographic.
Things get started with the death of Joe, husband of Arvilla (Lange). Arvilla and Joe had been together for 20-something wonderful years filled with travel and adventure; now Joe's daughter, Francine (Christine Baranski, who's not given much to do beyond being shrewish and shrill), wants her father's ashes back so she can bury them next to her mother. Arvilla wants to keep Joe's remains for herself, but Francine gives her an ultimatum: return my father's ashes, or I'll take away the house you lived with him in for all your life together. Arvilla agrees to return Joe's ashes to his daughter in time for the memorial service, but decides at the last minute to take Joe on one last road trip in his Bonneville convertible along the way. So instead of flying down, she embarks on a journey from Pocatello, Idaho to Santa Barbara with her best friends, Margene (Bates) and the tragically uptight Carol (Allen) to bring Joe's ashes home to the family he had before he had a life with her. As they go along on their journey, stopping along the way at places that had special meaning to Joe and Arvilla, her friends begin to suspect that Arvilla has more on her mind than just keeping her promise.
In a lot of ways, this is a typical road trip film, with all the flaws and foibles of most road trip films. There must be some unwritten code about shooting any film involving a journey in a car: sweeping shots of the passing landscapes must be included, as should meeting up with ruggedly handsome strangers for a little road-trip romance (unless, of course, it's a road trip horror film, in which case the rugged stranger might chop you up in his wood chipper later on). If the car being used for the trip is a convertible, there must be a scene of the people in the car rocking out to music appropriate for their generation while their hair whips wildly around and they shout into the wind. There's also a secret code that all movies involving "aging" actors must in some way allude to death -- someone must be dead, or one of the characters must be dying, or, for added poignancy, you can have both a dead person and a dying person.
Bonneville is directed by newcomer Christopher Rowley, and written by first-time scribe Daniel B. Davis, and. like a lot of films written and directed by newbies, it falls into some predictability potholes along the way. Bates narrowly avoids being the completely one-dimensional, wise-cracking sidekick you can practically see unfolding on the pages of the script; Allen's not given a lot of room to work with in the "uptight friend" role, and Skerritt's role, as road-trip love-interest for the skeptical Margene, doesn't have a lot of maneuverability either. All of the roles in the film are so simplistic that this talented cast is largely wasted; any one of them could take an afternoon nap while performing these parts; Bates, especially, looks like she knows it.
It's a shame, really, to have a cast this great and have to watch them struggle to make something meaningful out of material that's so one-note throughout, and Rowley should be thanking whatever Gods of Casting gifted him with performers of this merit, because their talent on-screen is the only thing that just barely manages to pull Bonneville from being stuck up to its hubcaps in the muck of Lifetime-Movie-of-the-Week territory. Even with talent like this pulling for it, the script is so predictably mundane that you can practically see the talent straining to make of it something more than what's there. I have to wonder, if the film didn't have these stars in it, would it ever have seen light of day off the fest circuit? I doubt it. Far better films have done their fest runs and then quietly withered away without ever getting theatrical distribution and, quite honestly, that's what I expected to happen to Bonneville.
About the kindest thing to say about Bonneville is that there are some decent performances by the cast, which has talent to spare and does its game best to breathe some life into the film. I remember when I first saw it back at Toronto in 2006, walking out of the theater just irritated that a cast of such merit had been so abysmally wasted, and that any film lucky enough to cast Bates, Allen and Lange together wouldn't take full advantage of the range of these talents on-screen at one time to do something really amazing. Unfortunately, this film just doesn't. It plays everything safe and predictable; it's almost as if the writer and director are trying so hard to aim this film at a particular demographic and not cross any unspoken boundaries, that in the process they miss the opportunity to make what could have been a much better film.
Here you have these three great actresses, traveling in a great old car, with a husband's ashes along for the ride; you have Skerritt, who keeps popping up like a benevolent stalker. You have an angry stepdaughter being played by Baranski, who's funny as hell given the right material, and a grieving-but-still-spunky widow played by Lange, who could lend depth and humor to a life insurance commercial. The possibilities for a subtly subversive, smart, and darkly comic film were just endless, and to see all that potential wasted on what's little more than a washed-out, milquetoast road trip comedy for the soon-to-be senior set is just a travesty.
Bonneville will probably do fine with older women, who will see the film with their friends and just appreciate that it has roles for three great actresses at once. They'll like the road-trippy angle, they'll appreciate the crisis that a beloved husband dying has on a wife, and they'll root for Lange to find a way to move on, with, of course, the help and support of her quirky friends. Meanwhile, while Arvilla mourns the loss of her husband, I'll be mourning the loss of the really great film Bonneville could have been.