John Henderson Albert Brooks
Beatrice Debbie Reynolds
Jeff Rob Morrow
Linda Lisa Kudrow
John’s Buddy John C. McGinley
Cheryl Isabel Glasser
Charles Peter White
A deftly observed study of mother-son tensions that remains pretty funny through most of its running time, “Mother” turns therapeutic self-psychoanalysis into good comic sport. The story of a man who moves back in with his mother to get to the bottom of why his relationships with women always fail, Albert Brooks’ first film as a director in five years might also be his most accessible. Comedian’s regular fans will certainly be amused, and broadly identifiable subject could attract a sizable audience with good reviews and strong marketing.
In addition to its clever concept and often mordant wit, pic features an outstanding performance from Debbie Reynolds in her first starring role in 27 years. Her part here as an idiosyncratic older woman of unexpected depth and interests is different from anything she has done before, and the veteran musical-comedy topliner should win raves for her expert timing and the gradual way sheunveils her character.
The setup represents the easy stuff for Brooks, but also some of the funniest. Suffering through his second divorce, John Henderson (Brooks) has come to recognize that every woman he has ever been involved with has ended up disliking him, and that none has truly supported his interests, including his mother.
In fact, for Mom he is the “other” son, the afterthought in the shadow of younger sprig Jeff (Rob Morrow), a successful sports attorney who phones his mother every day and actually craves her company despite having his own family.
An L.A. sci-fi novelist with an all-encompassing case of writer’s block, John tries dating again, with disastrous results, and then analyzes himself into The Experiment. To the accompaniment of a hilarious adaptation of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” John drives up to Sausalito, hits a speedbump when frosty Mom tries to serve him ancient frozen food from her fridge, and proceeds to return his old room to just as it was when he last occupied it in the late ‘ 60s, complete with “Barbarella” and Hendrix posters.
At this point, pic could have descended into a wallow in teenage nostalgia and navel-gazing. Fortunately, Brooks the filmmaker turns his attention generously over to the mother, Beatrice, who enjoys her relatively private life and only grudgingly tolerates her son’s goofy notion of self-discovery.
At first, Reynolds is limited to subtle expressions of exasperation and determination to hold to her shallow routine in the face of John’s disruptions. From his point of view, she’s stingy, set in her silly ways and infuriatingly unreflective on life in general and their relationship in particular.
But as John discovers that his mother has a life of her own, including a boyfriend and a hidden ambition to be a writer herself, it finally dawns on him that Mom is “a real person”; better yet, from his besieged, self-deprecating perspective, he can now think of her “as a failure” and proceed merrily with his life.
As these serious thoughts come to the fore, pic becomes more narrowly psychotherapeutic as well as more schematic, as the tables turn on longtime mama’s-favorite Jeff when John takes precedence in Beatrice’s life. Comic content reduces simultaneously, and final reel or so is a bit warm and squishy compared with the zingy neurotic and social humor of the first hour.
Still, overall effect is satisfying, as “Mother,” like Brooks’ previous work, is far more mentally engaging than most of the humor onscreen these days. Brooks is not afraid either to let his character be smarter than those around him or to make fun of John’s debilitating, self-absorbed problems. His performance is a winner, but still takes a back seat to Reynolds’ expertly judged comeback turn as a woman who has reasons for not wanting to look back that her son slowly comes to understand.
Morrow displays previously undisclosed comic gifts as the shrill, argumentative second son.
Pic has something of a brownish visual cast that might have been buffed up a bit, and the score tends to underline the film’s late-stages tendency toward sappiness rather than to offset it. But the storytelling verve, characterizations and observations about contemporary foibles are sharp, helping make this a rare intimate comedy that actually has something to do with real life.