Reno Finds Her Mom,” a filmed account of comedian Reno’s real-life, emotionally charged search for her birth mother, is an awkward blend of drama and comedy. The drama, such as it is, comes from the built-in significance of Reno’s task. The comedy, which isn’t very funny, stems from her own natural, abrasive humor and strange fantasy sequences about mother-daughter relationships that are neither enlightening nor entertaining. The latter observation is particularly surprising given the pedigree of executive producers Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner.
Reno’s meticulously documented voyage of familial discovery may leave viewers wondering why anyone would choose to taint so intimate and emotional an experience by filming it for mass consumption. Would she have taken this on without a production team and camera crew in tow? Even Reno’s own birth mother, whom she does indeed track down during this program, can’t get past this question, refusing to allow their initial meeting to be filmed because it is, well … personal, and not for mass consumption.
Although the basic situation here — the search for a parent — is undeniably dramatic, the execution does nothing extra to draw in viewers or to tap their emotions. The revelation that Reno has little involvement with her adoptive parents, a situation that is never satisfactorily explained, will do little to earn much-needed sympathy.
The creators of this docu-comedy seem to presuppose a built-in audience fascination with Reno, as if she were a household name or even a tabloid fave. Wrong conclusion, everyone.
The special opens promisingly enough, with a clever series of quick clips in which Reno, who knows nothing of her biological family history, asks people of various ethnic backgrounds if they think she could be one of them. The urgency of her need to know comes through, and even folks who haven’t heard of Reno might be tempted to stick around for the difficult journey ahead. But Reno comes on so strong that it all gets really old, really fast — as do the weird recurring fantasy skits about motherhood and parent-child relationships featuring Mary Tyler Moore, Tomlin and Reno.
Director Lydia Dean Pilcher does a competent job capturing Reno’s experiences on film, if not making us care about them. But she strikes out altogether when she veers into fantasy land.
After more than an hour of following Reno through countless twists and turns, poring through records, dealing with different agencies, piecing together parts of a puzzle that expands and contracts without warning, viewers might expect — indeed, demand — a payoff. Again, more disappointment.
Reno finds her mom all right, but mom — clearly not a Hollywood type — refuses to allow both her first telephone conversation with Reno and their first meeting to be filmed. Talk about an anti-climax. The closest we come to an emotional reward is a sequence in which Reno, who has traveled to Los Angeles from New York and found the apartment building her mother lives in, inadvertently sees her unsuspecting mother from across a busy street. Reno breaks down in the relative privacy of her car, somewhat ashamed at having inadvertently spied on her mother, and overwhelmed at having actually laid eyes on her.
That is as good as “Reno Finds Her Mom” gets on any level.