In Mother, Albert Brooks plays John Henderson, a science-fiction novelist, recently divorced from his second wife, who decides he can't risk another relationship until he comes to terms with his mother. So he does the logical thing: He moves in with her.
He hauls out of her garage all his old high-school bric-a-brac -- the trophies, the Jimi Hendrix and Barbarella posters, the Beach Boys albums -- and re-creates his old room. He also hauls out all his old resentments and annoyances. It's as if John and his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), had picked up where they left off 30 years ago without missing a beat. Their sparring is so practiced and timeworn they can raise hackles with just a moan or sigh.
Watching Mother, I was pulled between my long-held belief that Brooks is a comic genius and another feeling I often have at his movies: Why isn't the funniest man alive making the funniest movies ever made instead of these brilliant hit-and-miss jobs? It's not that Mother isn't good -- it has a few sequences that rank with his best (that is to say, anybody's best). But it also has a lot of poky, puttery, sort-of-funny stuff and a few renegade lapses into inexplicable high cheeriness.
The finale, for example, is so beribboned that at first you think Brooks must have surrendered to some studio-dictated happy ending. But Mother is nothing if not "personal," and as the film's director and co-writer (with Monica Johnson), Brooks was in a position to play God with his own hang-ups. He probably just decided to give himself a lift.
Once you settle into the realization that Mother isn't going to be great, you can sit back and roll with the good stuff. Even Brooks' half-realized ideas are often funnier than most filmmakers' full-fledged notions. Who else but he could have come up with the idea of leveling with your mother as a way to move on in the dating scene? It's Freud in slap shoes.
Beatrice, widowed and living in Sausalito, clearly prefers her other son, Jeff (Rob Morrow), a sharky/nerdy L.A. sports agent who lords his success over John and sucks up to her. Jeff gives her expensive baubles, like a video phone that she never quite figures out how to work. He's so competitive, he thinks being the king of mama's boys is a top prize.
John can't stand his brother, but like his mother Jeff is part of the central drama of his life. And without a wife or kids, what else has he to obsess over? John wants kids -- or, as he puts it, "I want to pass along my seed." But for now he has re-created himself as his own child. Beatrice, who hasn't a clue what he's up to, isn't eager to step into his time machine.
John wants some kind of reckoning from her, but she doesn't really want anything from him. That's what's so funny about his live-in visit -- the psychodrama is all on one side. While he sits in the kitchen bemoaning her halfhearted food offerings -- rock-hard cheese, cut-rate sherbet, wilted salad -- Beatrice putters about in a zonked haze. It's as if John were a hologram -- he's there, but he's not there.
Beatrice has been living by herself for a long time, and her routine doesn't include a son -- a vegetarian, no less -- who tries to pick apart her every motive. He does it to her because she does it to him, in a preconscious sort of way. Wherever they go together -- to the supermarket, restaurants, clothing stores -- she apologizes for him. She introduces John to friends as "my other son." To total strangers she recounts his woes -- not in sympathy, but as a kind of purgation. It's her way of separating herself from him. What she is really saying is, "He's mine, but he's not mine."
Brooks doesn't sentimentalize Beatrice's aloofness -- she really is the other kind. Reynolds appears to be a strange choice to play what might seem like a Shelley Winters part. But she's on Brooks' wavelength. She doesn't camp up the role or turn it into a Jewish-mother cartoon. Her Beatrice is an original: dazed and confused yet hyperacute about her own needs. Beneath her blandness she's a tough cookie. When her occasional suitor (Peter White) shows up to spend the night, she practically tells her shocked son to get lost.
The more we see of John's family, the more we understand why he writes science fiction. He'd like to be on another planet. Beatrice complains to him about his books without having read any of them. (When John mentions he's being asked to write a sequel, she responds, "Sequel to what?") She thinks he should be writing about "real people" instead of aliens with big heads. But for John, science fiction is reality; it's his life here on Earth that seems uncomfortably otherworldly. And yet John genuinely wants his mother's approval -- even though he doesn't really approve of her.
Brooks' tug of war is a lot closer to the truth of family relationships than most of the syrupy family-style movies gumming up the multiplexes. But like John, Brooks ultimately doesn't really want to alienate anybody. He's a good Jewish boy beneath the hardheadedness. Mother is set up to be a stranger and more daring comedy than the offhandedly genial jest it turns out to be.
John gets back at his mother by taking her to shop at Victoria's Secret, but Brooks doesn't bring anything special to the moment; it's a Freudian gag without the Freud or the gag. He doesn't play up in Mother the wide streak of obnoxiousness in his repertoire; his John isn't mile-a-minute manic or overbearing like the characters he played in Real Life or Modern Romance or Lost in America. He's more like the worrier from Defending Your Life -- the first Brooks movie in which I thought maybe La-La Land finally got to him.
Brooks is mellowing in ways that could prove problematic. It could be that he overvalues niceness. (It's the same problem Steve Martin, another wild original, has right now.) Or it could be that, for Brooks, being "nice" is the ultimate weirdness. Even at his most cooled-out his geniality carries an edge -- you keep waiting for the put-on to pay up. Facetious, barely stifling his aggravation, Brooks plays characters who are perpetually nonplussed by the world; they may be smarter than everybody else, but the joke is how little that smartness counts. Brooks' brains beleaguer him; it's the dim and the unobsessed who thrive.
In Mother, Brooks is trying for something beyond mere laughs. He's cooked up the idea that John can dispose of his mother complex by learning about her life -- by seeing her as a "real" person. But the essence of Brooks' art is that the closer you get to someone, the less real they are. The dirty little secret in Brooks' comic universe is that people who might at first seem like caricatures turn out to be caricatures. He stages a dinner-date scene in Mother with an IQ-challenged blonde (Lisa Kudrow) that is a peerless piece of political incorrectness. (Nobody does dating rituals better.) Brooks shouldn't have to get all winsome with us. He's already won us over -- with his smarts.
That's also the way Woody Allen used to win us over, but the bull-necked Brooks is flukier and doesn't come equipped with Allen's full table setting of cultural accouterments. Brooks' cultural references aren't tony; he's still pumped with counterculture pop -- like Hendrix and Barbarella. For John Henderson, moving back into his old room from high school isn't a stretch -- it's a confirmation. Without even trying for it, Brooks embodies the nutty waywardness of his generation. He's the kind of comic artist you look forward to growing old with. He should not go gentle into that good night.