It’s with mixed feelings that we watch the often hilarious “Smother.” No, Diane Keaton’s not a kid anymore. But she can still sink her actorly teeth into a wacked-out character, and Vince Di Meglio’s screwball comedy provides her with one of her best purely comedic roles since “Annie Hall.” A movie disguised as a sitcom — but understatedly, deceptively nuts — “Smother” has an admittedly small shot at building a cult audience before riding off to Lifetime tube airings and the DVD shelves, where it will likely enjoy a long and happy life.
Watching Dax Shepard is like watching the misbegotten fruit of Ray Romano and Zach Braff, but he serves as a stolidly besieged center for the minor maelstrom swirling around him. His character Noah has just been fired from his job as a physical therapist. His wife, Clare (a charming Liv Tyler), wants to have a baby; he doesn’t. Cousin Myron (Mike White), who’s writing a screenplay (” ‘Platoon’ meets ‘The Fly’ “) moves in under some pretense. And so does his mother, Marilyn (Keaton), because she thinks her husband Gene (Ken Howard) is having an affair — and because she seems predisposed toward driving Noah to distraction.
What’s remarkable about “Smother” is how casually the Di Meglio-Tim Rasmussen script digresses into non sequiturs or simple miscommunication, and how confidently Di Meglio allows the really smart gag lines to play out naturally. At no time does “Smother” feel strained; it feels obvious only in that it deals with the time-honored comic territory of mothers and sons. For some, “Smother” will recall Albert Brooks’ “Mother,” but the films are comparable only in their epic degree of comic resignation. “How am I going to screen her calls,” Noah asks Clare, “if she’s here with us?”
Mom doesn’t just haunt Noah at home; she’s at work, too. In desperation, Noah gets his old job back at the carpet store run by Donnie Booker (Jerry Lambert), who also hires Marilyn — and then makes Noah fire her. Lambert is terrific, recalling one of those marginal characters in a W.C. Fields film who are around to reinforce the theory that the universe is insane, and that, especially when it comes to your mother, you’re on your own.
Production values are adequate.