★★★★ / ★★★★
John (Albert Brooks), a science fiction novelist, has just been divorced for the second time. While sharing a few drinks with a friend (John C. McGinley) at a bar, John concludes that his relationships women did not work because something about the way he was raised disabled him from connecting with women—at least compared to most men who appear to be very capable of sustaining a healthy romantic relationship. So, John decides to move in with his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), to explore the roots of his personal problems.
Written by Albert Brooks and Monica Mcgowan Johnson, “Mother” has a silly premise full of booby traps adorned with potential clichés, but the picture manages to avoid the majority of them because most of the scenes are allowed to unfold with a specific pace coupled with increasingly funny punchlines. It is a comedy with a brain and with a big heart, too.
One of my favorite scenes unfolds in the kitchen where Beatrice offers her son food that are way past their expiration dates. Just when we are led to believe that the funniest bit involves the frozen lettuce, more come out of the fridge that are so unbelievable, I began to think of a certain person in my life and her tendency to offer barely edible food every time I come for a visit.
Unlike John who is so open to express that something looks or tastes gross, I tend to calmly accept and cautiously nibble at a suspicious-looking and/or stale-smelling dish while the person observes my reaction. I reveled in the vast differences in our responses. The fusion of the brilliantly executed scene and my own experiences reach a synergy to the point where I could no longer hold back my laughter.
Furthermore, I found the film surprising because its humor goes beyond the lines that has to be recited from the script or, worse, mistaking neuroses for personality. Under Albert Brooks’ direction, the material is able to utilize Reynolds’ and Brooks’ charm and quirks to hit certain notes not only to make us believe that we are watching a real mother and son, but also to convince us that despite the comedy on the surface, there is a genuine problem deeply embedded in their relationship that needs to be worked through without necessarily resulting to cheap sentimentality.
In the aforementioned kitchen scene, even though John is free to express his revulsion toward the age of the food presented to him, he does so in a respectful manner. Of course, the underlying issue is his mother being so cheap that she essentially eats food that will most likely induce a person to run for the bathroom. The issue of being cheap and, much later, self-loathing are explored through comedy with a small but undeniable hint of seriousness.
As plucky Beatrice, I found Reynolds so good at showing hurt in-between verbal jabs just before she picks herself up to attack and go for the jugular. Just because the character is in her seventies, it does not mean that it is easy to make a fool out of her. Half the fun of the film is watching the mother surprise her son in ways that he never expects.
During its weaker moments, however, John’s brother, Jeff (Rob Morrow), a classic momma’s boy, is given some time to express how threatened he is of the new bond between his mother and brother. The subplot involving Jeff should have been excised for the sake of better pacing and flow.
“Mother” is very relatable because it is perceptive, especially in terms of how mother and child give and react to criticisms. Like the bad salad John is served on the first night of his visit, some of its insights might be difficult to swallow—one of which is the realization that perhaps a good number of us do not, have never seen, or will never see our parents as real people.