So what is a "family movie," really? Must it include the zany hijinks of fuzzy lil' animals who can talk? Or perhaps it must entail grand adventures in the great outdoors by siblings cut off from civilization. And let's not forget those wacky senior citizens and all the trouble they can get into!
Somehow, our definition of the family movie has been reduced to meaning any film that is so pointless and trite nobody will be offended. (Of course, according to film critic and former presidential candidate Bob Dole, family fare means light-hearted romps like True LiesI guess watching Arab terrorists get blown up is some kind of bonding technique). Writer and director Albert Brooks has a different take on the family movie, howeverone that's insightful, sophisticated, and funny. He dares to offer a sense of what it really means to be in a family and how relationships can go wrong. And you can bet that somebody somewhere will be offended.
Mother is Brooks' most accessible comedy yet. "Accessible" is the term we critics use to apologize for movies that might be too smart to have mass appeal. And indeed, Brooks is one of the wittiest, most underrated screen comedians we have. Here's a guy who's created his own unique on-screen persona, has written and directed a handful of comedy gems (including 1991's Defending Your Life), and still couldn't get recognized at Wal-Mart if his life depended on it. At most, his public reputation amounts to "that guy who acts like Woody Allen."
But his Woody-impersonator rep is undeserved. While they might both be neurotic Jewish guys who over analyze themselves, Allen and Brooks couldn't be more different as comedians. Whereas Allen reduces his anxieties to almost cartoonish monologues, Brooks is resolutely realistic in his self-flagellation. His on-screen character is completely unlikablewhiny, selfish, rude. In real life, he'd be the kind of guy you couldn't wait to get away from. But in his movies, the humor arrives in our realization that sometimes we all behave as he doeshe delivers the worst of human impulses and lets us laugh at them.
In Mother, he plays science fiction writer John Hendersona whiny, selfish, rude neurotic who has just divorced his second wife. Convinced that all his problems with women are rooted in his shaky relationship with his mom, he decides to return home to live with her and figure out why they can't communicate. Naturally, his plan does not proceed very smoothly.
Debbie Reynoldsreturning to film after a 27-year hiatusplays his mother, Beatrice. Beatrice undoubtedly loves both her sons, but clearly favors her youngest, Jeff (played by Rob Morrow). While everything Jeff achieves as a sports agent receives her warmest praise, John mostly gets polite disdain. Science fiction? That's nice, dearbut you're no Stephen King. The Rogaine worked? Well, your hairline is still receding. You're a vegetarian? I'll make you some lamb chops.
Despite a rather slow beginning (how many telephone conversations must we listen to?), Mother starts hitting laugh-out-loud territory when John actively tries to get along with Beatriceonly accentuating their differences. A trip to the grocery is a clash of food philosophies: Beatrice will only buy generic brand items, John wants to buy pricey organic foods. At the mall, Beatrice must personally apologize for her son to every clerk, revealing every detail of his recent divorce; in revenge, John embarrasses her at Victoria's Secret. It's a battle of wills that becomes increasingly hilarious.
Eventually, the dynamics behind their relationship are revealed, and the two start bonding. And it's here where you can really appreciate Reynolds' performance. At first, she appears as sort of an Everymom, comical in her rather odd parenting ways (i.e., storing 3-year-old bulk cheese in the freezer because it'll save money instead of buying fresh cheese). By film's end, however, she's as complex and layered as Brooks' worrywart. It just goes to show what can happen when you give the right role to the right actressto heck with Uma, give us more Debbie.
If you haven't seen an Albert Brooks film before, be forewarned: his schtick is definitely a matter of taste. But if you can appreciate the subtleties of anxiety, then Brooks is the genius you've been waiting for. Mother is a family movie that reveals more about true bonding than a hundred wilderness epics.