Thomas Wolfe’s immortal words about the impossibility of homecomings loom large over “Momma’s Man,” writer-director Azazel Jacobs’ wryly comic, sometimes heartbreaking and altogether original film about a thirtysomething Angeleno who pays a visit to his aging New York parents and finds himself unwilling or unable to leave. Jacobs’ third and most confident feature to date (following “Nobody Needs to Know” and “The Goodtimes Kid”), this minimalist but richly satisfying pic seems assured of fervent critical support and a small but passionate word-of-mouth following on the fest circuit and beyond.
In one of several autobiographical touches, Jacobs casts his own parents — legendary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and his wife, Flo — as the parents of his onscreen alter ego, Mikey (played to sad-sack perfection by Matt Boren), and sets the film primarily in the exuberantly cluttered Chambers Street loft where he was reared.
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Mikey returns to that loft, claiming to have been bumped from his flight back to Los Angeles — a plausible enough excuse that buys him 24 more hours back home with mom and dad. But when that day gives way to several, Mikey’s excuses start to sound increasingly desperate. Soon, he stops taking phone calls from his understandably panicked wife (Dana Varon) in L.A.
Back in his childhood bedroom — an upper corner of the loft — Mikey surrounds himself with old toys, comics, scrapbooks and other Proustian triggers of stored-up memories. He sets about reconnecting with a neighborhood friend (Piero Arcilesi) recently released from jail, and a high-school girlfriend (Eleanor Hutching) to whom he feels he owes an apology. Until, that is, like one of the eternal dinner guests of Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel” (a film Jacobs has cited as an influence), Mikey finds himself physically incapable of crossing the threshold of the loft’s front door.
Just what (beyond the general panic of a generation that knows it won’t be better off than its parents) has prompted Mikey’s existential crisis is never directly addressed, though Mikey is himself the father of a newborn baby. The parental anxiety, though, cuts both ways, as mom and dad ponder what they can do — short of changing the locks — to help get Mikey out of his depressive funk.
It’s a premise that, in other hands, might have made for an over-the-top Adam Sandler farce. Jacobs, however, pulls off the trickier feat of balancing the scenario’s melancholy emotional realities with unexpected moments of Chaplinesque slapstick (as in Mikey’s increasingly violent efforts to combat his agoraphobia).
Above all, “Momma’s Man” feels like an intensely personal consideration of the impermanence of things — not just childhood, but also neighborhoods, cities, entire ways of life.
Lyrically shot in grainy 35mm by cinematographer Tobias Datum, the movie captures in vivid detail one of the last stretches of ungentrified New York and the lives of the artists and intellectuals who dwell there. It also celebrates the seminal avant-garde art-making of the elder Jacobs, through brief, elegantly inserted excerpts from his famed “nervous magic lantern” light-projection shows and from his 2004 magnum opus “Star Spangled to Death.”