||A road movie that boasts pleasant company but a broken-down vehicle, “Bonneville” puts a stellar cast in a script that’s cobbled together from cliché and unfulfilled good intentions. It puts such familiar names as Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen—as well as Christine Baranski, Tom Skerritt and Tom Wolpat—in a story that seems ready-made for the Lifetime Network.
As the film opens, Arvilla Holden (Jessica Lange), a Salt Lake City widow, is being confronted by her brusque stepdaughter Francine (Christine Baranski) about the remains of Francine’s late father, whom Arvilla has had cremated. Francine, who was obviously never thrilled with her stepmother, threatens to sell Arvilla’s house unless the ashes are brought to California for burial with the dead man’s first wife. The grieving woman, who’d promised to scatter the ashes in places the couple had loved, nonetheless agrees, whereupon her two best friends, rambunctious Margene (Kathy Bates) and straitlaced Carol (Joan Allen), agree to accompany her to the West Coast. At the last minute, though, Arvilla decodes to forego the planned flight in favor of driving in her late husband’s carefully-preserved 1966 Bonneville.
What follows is a road trip that supposed to be both joyous and sad, but above all life-affirming, as the three woman careen from adventure to adventure, learning about themselves and the others along the way. Sharp-tongued but jovial Margene finds unexpected romance with Emmett (Tom Skerritt), a courteous trick driver they bump into. The women befriend Bo (Victor Rasuk), a young hitchhiker on a mission of his own. Carol’s brittle exterior gradually melts under the warmth of their shared experience. And Arvilla, of course, overcomes her fear of Francine to fulfill her commitment to her dead husband.
“Bonneville” is obviously meant to elicit a mixture of laughter and tears, but it’s more likely to generate smirks and groans. Daniel D. Davis’ script is a paint-by-numbers job in which the calculation is slathered on every page, and neophyte Christopher N. Rowley directs without any particular imagination. Of course he has a stellar cast, and while the three actresses aren’t asked to deliver anything we haven’t seen from them before—with Lange doing Blanche DuBois-like fragility, Bates earth-mother heft and Allen a prissiness that eventually crumbles—they’re still eminently watchable, even when they have to play entirely too many scenes in which they all dissolve into cackles together. Baranski certainly pins down Francine’s snobbishness, and Rasuk and Skerritt both exude pleasantness (it’s notable that the male characters are all likable, sweet-natured guys). But they too are mostly coasting here.
This is obviously a modestly-budgeted movie, and it looks it, despite the location shooting, in which Jeffrey L. Kimball’s widescreen cinematography is basically just workmanlike. All the other technical credits are adequate but not much more.
The good intentions cascade from the screen in “Bonneville,” and the performers do the material proud. It’s a pity that the script isn’t worthy of their formidable talents.