Thesp Famke Janssen’s directorial debut, “Bringing Up Bobby,” starring native Milla Jovovich, is a technically competent but painfully broad dramedy about a larcenous mother-and-son duo in the Midwest. This gender-flipped, latter-day “Paper Moon” lacks that film’s judicious restraint, among other things, alternating hick Americana cartoonishness with maudlin appeals to the tear ducts. Unappealing mix has been kicking around fests for the past year; current limited theatrical launch (commencing today at Gotham’s Village East) is likely to be but a brief precursor to a home-format release buoyed somewhat by cast names.
First seen talking their way into stealing a car off a sales lot (to the accompaniment of Jovovich’s Russian-language vocal on a twangy “Proud Mary”), Ukrainian emigree Olive (Jovovich) and 11-year-old son Bobby (Spencer List) are cheerful partners in crime. Having just fled Kansas City for Oklahoma due to some recent brush with the law, they set themselves up at a temporary address with the help of regular fence Walt (Rory Cochrane).
For the umpteenth time, Bobby re-enters school, where he wastes little time proving himself an obnoxious little smart-ass. Indeed, the pic’s major miscalculation, among many smaller ones, is its assumption that the audience will find wacky, tacky mom and loutish son as delightfully nonconformist as they find themselves. Instead, Bobby just seems like a brat, while fruity-accented, garishly dressed Olive never appears to have a genuine moment in Jovovich’s dinner-theater-farce performance. Thus, it’s a real problem when the pic abruptly asks us to care deeply about them.
Which happens fast, as the skateboarding youth is accidentally hit by a passing car. He’s not seriously hurt, but Olive sniffs economic opportunity in pretending otherwise, since the driver, Kent (Bill Pullman), is a wealthy local businessman. Soon, however, she’s got more pressing concerns. Thrown in prison for past misdeeds, she’s given the choice of surrendering Bobby to institutional foster care or letting Kent and his wife, Mary (Marcia Cross), take the boy in. Eight months later, she’s free again, but must make another, more permanent decision for Bobby’s future when circumstances paint her as a bad parental influence (a judgment one can hardly argue with). Pic ends on a particularly weak note.
Apart from sober Pullman and Cross, the performers are encouraged to go over the top, and Janssen’s barn-door-broad script doesn’t provide the kind of material that can turn caricature into comedic (let alone sentimental) gold. At one point, Olive reluctantly admits she was born in 1968, but often the film seems to be set back then, or in the mid-’70s; its heartland depiction is the kind in which people dress and act like they’re in some vintage drive-in movie, because that’s probably exactly where the filmmakers drew their view of the culture.
Tech and design contributions are pro.