Albert Brooks, Leelee Sobieski, 'My First

"My First Mister" is a mild, obvious but not entirely unappealing look at two unlikely friends who drag each other out of their self-protective shells. Comforting, easy-to-take item is far too simplistic to become a critical favorite, and Paramount will have to work hard to lure the middle-aged mainstream public that would most respond to the film.

“My First Mister” is mostly two big character arcs in search of a story. A mild, obvious but not entirely unappealing look at two unlikely friends who drag each other out of their self-protective shells, Christine Lahti’s feature directorial debut walks an innocuous middle line between the story’s maudlin possibilities and its meaningful potential, while showing a ready instinct for the audience-pleasing laugh. Comforting, easy-to-take item is far too pat and simplistic to become a critical favorite, and Paramount Classics, given the lack of strong B.O. selling points, will have to work hard to lure the picky middle-aged mainstream public that would most respond to the film’s approach and sense of humor. Better results would appear to lie down the line on video and TV.

Lahti won an Oscar for her 1996 first short film, “Lieberman in Love,” and her evident touch with actors and ability to generate easy humor suggest that she should have little trouble continuing her career as a director if she wants it. All the same, the picture is terribly caricatured around the edges, and far too much of the comedy stems from making light of stereotypical personality traits.

In fact, pic’s opening section is devoted to defining its central character and narrator, Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski), via her multiple skin piercings, tattoos, Goth wardrobe and makeup schemes, and absorption in death-obsessed music and poetry. Seventeen, just graduating from an L.A. high school and, natch, the product of divorce, Jennifer is the picture of cynicism, suspicion and disgust, and has a completely dysfunctional relationship with her idiotically oblivious mother (Carol Kane).

Better adjusted, at least superficially, is Randall Harris (Albert Brooks), a genial and fastidious fellow whom the bored Jennifer spies on one day as he prepares a window display in a sedate men’s clothing store. Annoyed but faintly amused by Jennifer when she starts buzzing around the shop, Randall politely asks her to get lost, but instead she cleans herself up and ultimately gets a job in the stockroom.

So begins a tentative relationship that is marked by such sitcommy scenes as Jennifer’s taking her 49-year-old boss to a grunge coffee dive, where he promptly orders a Sanka and guesses that she keeps a copy of “The Bell Jar” by her bedside (she does). But a certain poignancy creeps in when it becomes apparent that R (the two begin calling each other by their initials) is just as lonely and estranged from ordinary life as J is, and they forge a mutual trust built on confidences that they’ve shared with no one else: She’s a virgin whose family history has made her feel unworthy of being loved, while he’s divorced, prematurely aged and afraid of everything.

R’s stodginess infuriates J at times, and perhaps the hokiest scene involves her attempt to get him to “loosen up” by getting a tattoo on Venice Beach. But R makes up for his presumed shortcomings in other ways, such as enabling J to leave her stifling home by finding her an apartment and showing her a safe way to emerge from her shell.

An hour in, however, medical revelations clarify much about R’s character and place probable limits on the couple’s time together. Granted, they aren’t a “couple” per se; screenwriter Jill Franklyn (a sitcom vet with “Seinfeld,” “The Secret Lives of Men” and “It’s Like, You Know …” on her resume) resolutely steers clear of the story’s Lolita-ish possibilities. But J feels sufficiently committed to R at this point to take certain matters into her hands, initiating a strange reunion of his and her extended families that amounts to an agreeably low-keyed, emotionally nuanced climax.

Even though you can practically hear the drum rolls, script’s numerous wisecracks and punch lines are undeniably amusing, and the two lead performances have a substantial warming effect. Mustachioed and paunchy, Brooks is quieter and more relaxed than usual, and he makes R an agreeable companion for the viewer as well as for J. Under all the heavy makeup and accoutrements, Sobieski at the outset doesn’t display the raw nerve endings to entirely convince as the edgiest girl on the block, but her performance blossoms as J begins connecting with R.

Dragging the film down into the lowest realm of caricature is the portrait of J’s mother; as written and then performed by Kane, she’s a cartoon of the sort of busybody mom who refuses to confront what her baby has become. Especially with the expertly written and acted mother in “Almost Famous” still fresh in the mind, it’s hard to take this sort of superficiality. Just as one-note is John Goodman’s role as J’s irresponsible old hippie father, but thesp’s vigorous scene-stealing is hilarious all the same. As a young man who enters R and J’s lives late in the game, Desmond Harrington looks like a very promising up-and-comer.

Small-scaled picture is handsomely outfitted, although, like so many Hollywood films today, it is overscored, with every moment evidently deserving of musical punctuation.

My First Mister

Production

A Paramount Classics release of a Total Film Group presentation, in association with Film Roman, of a Firelight/Apollo Media co-production. Produced by Mitchell Solomon, Sukee Chew, Anne Kurtzman, Carol Baum, Jane Goldenring. Executive producer, Gerald Green. Co-producer, Frank Hubner. Co-executive producers, Jon F. Vein, Howard Rosenman, Robert Kurtzman. Directed by Christine Lahti. Screenplay, Jill Franklyn.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Jeffrey Jur; editor, Wendy Greene Bricmont; music, Steve Porcaro; music supervisor, Andy Hill; production designer, Dan Bishop; art director, Gary Kosko; set decorator, Kathe Klopp; costume designer, Kimberly A. Tillman; sound (Dolby Digital), Douglas Tourtelot; supervising sound editors, Sandy Gendler, Jesse Pomeroy; line producer, Roger Pugliese; assistant director, John M. Nelson; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (opening night, Salt Lake City), Jan. 18, 2001. Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Randall ("R") - Albert Brooks Jennifer ("J") - Leelee Sobieski Randy - Desmond Harrington Mrs. Benson - Carol Kane Patty (Nurse) - Mary Kay Place Bob - Michael McKean Benjamin - John Goodman

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