I'm moving back home, mom... what did you do to my room?
Written and directed by Albert Brooks.
Starring Albert Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, and Lisa Kudrow.By Scott C. Deskin
Mother, the latest film from Albert Brooks, has the earmarks of a terrifying neurosis-fest. The plot is at once familiar with and subversive of the ubiquitous middle class (Hollywood-style, of course). Man goes through second divorce. Man ponders relationships with women, wonders if relationship with own mother hasn't damaged him in some way. Also, feelings of inadequacy linger regarding mother's outward favoritism of a more successful younger brother. And the kicker: Man decides to move back in with mother in order to find out what went wrong.
In this film, the man, John Henderson (Brooks), is engulfed in mid-life crisis. When he tries to coax his second wife to talk about "the good times" in front of the divorce lawyer, she gets up and leaves him with the bill; he confesses to the lawyer, "She has good furniture." Thus, he returns to his newly-unfurnished home, pondering his next move. He decides to call his mother (Debbie Reynolds) for some moral support: no such luck. The cadence of their dialogue suggests a mere vestige of a familial relationship long since allowed to wither away. The closest they get to affection is suggested by her "I love you" and his "I know you think you do."
Intent on hitting the dating scene once more, and after declaring to a friend that he wants to pass on his seed, he goes out to dinner with a young blonde (Lisa Kudrow) he met in the supermarket. Since he's a novelist, he figures he can break the ice on discussing favorite authors: She comes up with Jacqueline Susann and Charlie Chaplin ("You know, Tale of Two Cities?"). Needless to say, after this horrifying experience, John retreats from dating altogether and looks inward. He asks his younger brother Jeff (Rob Morrow) why their mother likes him better. Jeff, a sports agent and prodigious gift-giver of company-supplied picture phones, brushes John's concerns aside, contending that Mother wouldn't favor one brother over the other on the basis of personal success. John isn't so sure, so he takes the next logical step in his mind to heal his inner child and re-establish an emotional kinship with Mother by moving back in with her.
In "the experiment," as John calls it, he drives up from L.A. to Sausalito and lets the details of his indefinite stay unfold layer by layer. Mother welcomes him with open arms and comments, "Now why didn't you want to stay in a hotel?" Their wry verbal jabs they make at each other are only the outward sign of a much larger rift between them - John is certain. Since he's also suffering a case of writer's block (regarding his latest science fiction novel), he figures that moving back into his old room and redeploying nostalgic elements of his youth (2001 and Barbarella posters on the wall, Jimi Hendrix and Wilson Pickett on the stereo) will give him some inspiration.
Of course, this all proves distressing to John's mother, who wants to help her son but is reluctant to change her life around for him. As played by Reynolds, Mother looks upon John with squinted eyes and pursed lips, as if her son has gone a little bonkers or, even worse, that he might unearth the problem in their relationship that he is supposedly investigating. John's stay in her home even encroaches on her semi-secretive love life, as she reluctantly confesses that she and her gentleman caller do "have sex occasionally."
Mother is a bold experiment, not just in the plot it entails but as a film as well, endeavoring to produce comedy from family dysfunction, a formula which most of us think has been done to death (did we really need a sequel to Terms of Endearment?). But Brooks finds life in the formula yet, and it helps that co-star Reynolds turns in a wonderfully comic but restrained performance of a woman who really embodies the role for all its strengths and foibles. Those who remember her from Singin' in the Rain or The Unsinkable Molly Brown are in for a surprise. In spite of a nicely pat resolution, the film still succeeds in deconstructing its subject matter by the sly exuberance of its performances. Hopefully this comic gem won't be overlooked at Oscar time.