Menopause may well be a universal condition, but the brand of narcissistic self-examination on display in Henry Jaglom’s “The M Word” is distinctly Southern Californian. One might even say it’s Jaglomian, given the iconoclastic writer-director’s prior forays into such delicate distaff issues as body image (“Eating”), pregnancy (“Babyfever”) and compulsive shopping (“Going Shopping”). For his 19th self-financed, self-distributed feature, Jaglom toys little with his formula of actorly improvisations and a plot that allows for maximum use of his sprawling Santa Monica home (plus maximum exposure for ingenue du jour Tanna Frederick). The lively but wildly erratic result will surely please his winnowing fan base, while baffling most others and doing little to deter Jaglom himself, who already has movie No. 20 in the can.
Jaglom, who started out as an ancillary member of Bob Rafelson’s BBS Prods. group (where he directed his one and only studio-backed feature, 1971’s “A Safe Place,” with Jack Nicholson, Tuesday Weld and Orson Welles), rose to indie prominence in the ’80s with a series of melancholic mood pieces (“Always,” “Someone to Love,” “New Year’s Day”) that inevitably starred the director as the neurotic love object of multiple beautiful women. But Jaglom arguably hit his artistic — and commercial — peak with a string of mid-’90s efforts (including the lovely, Chekovian “Last Summer in the Hamptons”) made in partnership with his then-wife, actress-writer Victoria Foyt.
More recently, Jaglom has devoted himself to promoting the peculiar charms of Frederick, a big, brassy comic performer who evokes Bette Midler and Jim Carrey at their most manic, and whom Jaglom has done few favors by repeatedly casting as an aspiring actress/singer who dazzles everyone with her natural talent (see “Hollywood Dreams,” “Queen of the Lot,” “Just 45 Minutes From Broadway”). “The M Word” continues that trend, positing Frederick’s Moxie Landon as the star of a popular children’s television hour on Los Angeles’ last “truly independent” TV station, KZAM. Trippy even by the psychedelic standards of “Teletubbies” and “Barney & Friends,” the show, titled “Mrs. Goldenrod’s Roundup,” features Moxie as the human-sized canine sidekick of the eponymous host (who’s played by a male performer in drag).
If “Mrs. Goldenrod’s” is effectively a pre-school version of one of Jaglom’s own films (with loosely structured improvisations crescendoing toward the hysterical), the self-portraiture doesn’t end there. It doesn’t take much to see venerable KZAM and its motley crew of multitasking eccentrics as a metaphor for the director’s own idiosyncratic stock company, while Moxie herself moonlights as a Jaglom-esque filmmaker, shooting a pilot for a proposed reality series about her menopausal mom (Frances Fisher), aunts (Mary Crosby and Eliza Roberts) and assorted co-workers. A typical interview question: “What is your emotional life like right now inside?”
It isn’t just the women of “The M Word” who are going through a major life change — so, too, is KZAM, descended on by cost-cutting suits from the “network” in New York (never mind the station’s touted independence) whose arrival transforms Jaglom’s film into something of a poor man’s “Up in the Air.” Determined to save everyone’s job, Moxie stages a sit-in (which, improbably, becomes national news), even as she finds herself falling for one of the brusque hatchet men (Michael Imperioli). Eventually, everyone realizes they’re sitting on a potential goldmine in the form of Moxie’s reality show, heralded as “the biggest hush-hush topic that has never been covered by American TV.” Who knew?
Jaglom studied under Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio, and as a director he has long embraced the kind of emotional exhibitionism one finds in acting classes, where students are asked to “become” a certain color, or animal. His scenes are like the protoplasmic goo of drama, with actors of varying skill levels trying to invent something out of nothing and then looking for a way out — usually by screaming, crying or storming offscreen, sometimes all of the above. A little of this tends to go a long way, but Jaglom is reliably on firmer ground when he simply allows his (predominately female) cast to speak directly to camera about the issues that affect them. Here, those testimonials are couched as excerpts from Moxie’s in-progress series, and they range from the angry to the confessional to the comically inspired, as when one character interprets the murder of Duncan in “Macbeth” as a menopausal act.
Forty-plus years into his filmmaking career, it’s possible to see Jaglom as a prophet of mumblecore, reality TV and other strains of DIY filmmaking that have become so commonplace as to make his own high-end home movies seem almost mainstream. At the same time, “The M Word” reveals that Jaglom and longtime d.p. Hanania Baer have latterly discovered the dolly, Steadicam and visual effects, lending a few new textures to their patented point-and-zoom aesthetic.