MOTHER ** 4/5
John, a 40-something writer of sci-fi novels, has had two marriages and three serious affairs --all ending in fiascoes, whereas his businessman younger brother Jeff is a contented husband and father. Jeff's house, cleverly (because it is done discreetly) exudes bourgeois values.
The brothers have an equally cleverly-written talk about their mother Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds) and the fact that Jeff is her favorite son. It's as though a hidden microphone is recording real people. The dialogue is broken as Jeff, who calls Mother daily, speaks to her on a new video-phone that (more gags) she handles ineptly.
In another early sequence, John has his first post-divorce date. Trying to make conversation in a restaurant he asks the young woman who her favorite authors are. Her reactions are topped by the name "Charlie Chaplin" to whom she attributes the writing of "A Tale of Two Cities." What the dickens, this may be broad humor but it is hilarious.
John, overly conscious of his failures with relationhips, concluding somehow that all this started with his mother. He decides that the cure is to go and stay with her for awhile. The visit is the film's substance. Debbie Reynolds, not seen in a major movie role since 1971, is trim, soignee and with a mind of her own. (She was 64 when the film was made; Brooks was approaching 50. Both seem younger).
The mother and son encounters are fraught with misunderstandings and non-understandings as they revolve around such mundane matters as food, John's old room, shopping, Mother's visiting beau, her matter-of-fact mentions that she is having sex, her compulsive discussing of John with acquaintances or strangers, her reactions to his books, and much else. For a comedy, the welcome of John is pretty chilling. There's not much affection in the air, on either side. For John the bottom line is that Beatrice has been and remains a non-approving mother. And what amouns to an intrusion on a woman who has lived alone for twenty years does not help either.
There are also throwaway bits all over, like the dig at Stephen King who"writes something over and over again," and several smart inventions, actions and reactions. To reveal only one category, John does not eat meat, yet Beatrice absent-mindedly keeps offering warmed-over meat dishes. She also presents him with a gigantic slab of Gruyere cheese that has been in her freezer for three years, with antique frozen salad and other items kept by her un-needed frugality vis-a-vis money. It's not always clear, but Mother must be stocking up on wholesale-priced specials. It reminds of Woody Allen's saying "In my family there was just one sin -- to buy retail."
Brooks was Los Angeles born and bred. "Mother," set in California, contains Californian Brookisms, sharp observations of psychology, lifestyles and behavior, as well as an underlayer of Jewish humor. It's funny stuff but it should have been funnier. "Mother" feels more like a two-character play than a movie. Compared to most films, it far fewer sequences. These go on too long and are often overdone.
Debbie Reynolds's very good performance is carried out with minimal facial expressions and body language. But the script takes her idiosyncrasies too far. Bothersome too is the fact that Mother just might be a sly cookie but comes through as a mix of flutterheadedness and vagueness.
There is a generation gap. The satirical treatment of older people (note the ladies at the supermarket) makes me wonder if Brooks is not something of an ageist. Still, the principal gap is one of mutual incomprehension unrelated to age.
Like the many fans of Albert Brooks I appreciate his abstaining from second-rate projects or from overexposing himself. Starting in 1979 he has acted in a dozen movies, including all five that he wrote and directed: "Real Life," "Modern Romance," "Lost in America," "Defending Your Life" and "Mother." All are original, none is cookie-cutter formulaic.
The last time I saw him as a performer was in "I'll Do Anything," It was generally underrated because in its first life it was a musical. After audience tests, it had its music removed -- yet it was one of the best pictures of 1994, with Brooks's manic performance contributing a great deal. In "Mother," Brooks does the opposite, keeps a rein on histrionics, at the cost of seeming a rather dull fellow--a wise decision.
Less wise is the arbitrary two-step happy ending. It uses the artificial trick of a revelation that brings mother and son close to each other; it suddenly makes of her a woman with unexpected,hidden talents and intelligence; it closes with a phony "new beginning" for John.
Although the film needs tightening as well as more development (what made and makes John and his mother the way they are?), it still is definitely recommended.
Note: Writers-directors-actors Mel Brooks, James L. Brooks and Albert Brooks are not related by blood. But the last two might be called the Brooks Brothers as they have worked so much together. James L. was in Albert's "Real Life" and "Modern Romance." Albert was in James L.'s "Broadcast News" and " "I'll Do Anything."