Sons and Lovers

Albert Brooks’ creepily Oedipal Mother.

Directed by Albert Brooks
Paramount Pictures

In 1981, Albert Brooks co-wrote, directed, and starred in a grueling comedy called Modern Romance, in which a man compulsively breaks up with and then chases the same, increasingly wary girlfriend, seeming to value her only after she rejects him. When the picture left preview audiences appalled, studio bosses begged Brooks to add a scene in a psychiatrist’s office in which the protagonist would explain, straightforwardly, what his problem was. “I don’t know what his problem is,” Brooks reportedly told the executives. “You saw the movie; you tell me what his problem is!”

As an artist, Brooks has never gone in for analysis; he has preferred to work in dangerous, unmapped territory, bounding into the jungle of his own neuroses and, like an unnervingly robust safari leader, waving his audience along for the fun. Needless to say, the ensuing spectacle isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time: ModernRomance went out sans psychiatrist scene and was, as feared, a box-office dud. Brooks didn’t direct again until his anti-travel road movie LostinAmerica (1985)–a tidy masterpiece that pitilessly debunked the escapist fantasies of an affluent baby boomer. Less abrasive (and more hilarious) than its predecessor, Lost in America was a modest commercial success; since then, Brooks has worked even harder to make his on-screen alter ego sympathetic. In a 1987 interview, he winced when I referred to his protagonists as “insecure,” suggesting in its place the term “vulnerable.” He was also unhappy with “whiny,” because no one likes a whiner. His characters don’t whine, he protested: “They plead: ‘This is bad. Things are bad here. Help.’ “

In Mother, his widely acclaimed new comedy (co-written with Monica Johnson), Brooks has essentially made the “missing” psychiatrist scene of Modern Romance into a feature. There’s no doctor, mind you, and the character’s string of failed marriages is barely dramatized. But the thrust of the film is frankly therapeutic. The vulnerable (not insecure), pleading (not whiny) hero, John Henderson (played by Brooks)–deducing that the common thread among his two ex-wives and three serious girlfriends is that they didn’t really believe in him, and that the pattern began with his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds)–moves back into his mom’s Sausalito, Calif., home in an attempt to explore that most primary of relationships. What he’s going to do, he announces, is re-create the feelings of his childhood, analyze what went wrong, and apply what he learns to his life as an adult. He calls this “the Experiment,” and assures the skeptical, not-altogether-welcoming Beatrice that a psychological breakthrough awaits. Meanwhile, he sets about rebuilding his old room–complete with lava lamp and Barbarella poster.

The setup, of course, is pure Brooksian genius, both poignantly human and absurd. The rampaging idealist of Real Life (1979) and Modern Romance would have regressed into infantilism and made a mess of his mother’s existence and his own; he’d probably have blown up the house in his quest for mental health. But the older Brooks has a less deterministically self-hating vision. There’s no irony when John, dismayed by his mother’s penchant for cut-rate supermarket brands, announces, “You treat yourself cheaply and have instilled that in me.” Is this new, inquiring aesthetic a leap up the ladder for Brooks? A sign that he’s evolving into a more mature artist? Maybe a more mature person, but if you love his early, often madly exhibitionistic work as much as I do, you might find Mother on the obvious side. The picture takes its amazingly rich premise and thins it out and sweetens it; what’s left seems like baby food.

A s always, Brooks works in a style that is radically plain. (“Look,” he seems to say, “It’s just me: no makeup, no funny camera angles. Can you take it?“) He’ll stay with a wide shot of two people sitting at opposite ends of a table or desk, attempting (and mostly failing) to connect. There are one-liners, but they are frequently lame, like so many dumb jokes that people make to keep a conversation going. (Their lameness is the point: It underlines the sense of hopelessness, the lack of transcendence even through humor.) Banalities are shuffled and reshuffled to create a kind of slapstick linguistic displacement; meanwhile, his hero’s physical displacement is underlined by 1960s-sitcom-style music that’s like Henry Mancini without the tunefulness.

Brooks’ minimalism can be amazingly jampacked, but Mother is perilously slack. It’s not just that Brooks repeats the same jokes–he does that in his other films, too (although this one has the smallest cast and the most claustrophobic settings). And it’s not that the jokes aren’t good. Reynolds’ Beatrice is a mesmerizing figure, a puckish, rounded kewpie doll who’s something of a passive-aggressive monster. She introduces John as “my son–the other one,” and subtly dismisses his literary output (he’s a lesser-known science-fiction writer) when he’s practically crying for reinforcement. She prattles to strangers about the failures of his life, filling him with shame, and drives him nuts with her own lack of shame as she sits at the entrance gate of a mall parking lot, insouciantly wondering whether to take the ticket while impatient drivers queue up behind her. Her treatment of food leaves him (and us) aghast, especially her habit of keeping a brontosaurean block of cheese in the freezer, hauling it out to carve slices with an electric knife.Some of these scenes–especially the howlers in the kitchen–are deadpan masterworks. And Mother is loaded with tiny shocks of recognition. John’s younger brother, Jeff (Rob Morrow, who has a voice that still squeaks and who wears the world’s most cretinous haircut), is a successful, revved-up sports agent who has always been his mother’s favorite; he calls her every day (often on a ludicrously primitive picture-phone), and dashes up from Los Angeles when he senses that his brother is robbing him of much-craved attention. The physical tension between the brothers is so palpable that I kept expecting the older to jump on the younger and start whaling away. There’s even a broad suggestion of sexual rivalry, underlined by Beatrice’s coquettish manner and John’s frequent, creepy Oedipal joshing. (As a prank, he drags his Mom to Victoria’s Secret and tells the salesclerk he’s buying her lingerie; he trumpets that they’re lovers within earshot of neighbors.)

It sounds like killer stuff, both funny and unsettling, but small shocks of recognition don’t necessarily add up to one big jolt of insight. The brother episode dribbles away, and the conclusion of John’s journey–his epiphany–is so easy that I wondered if it were meant to be fatuous, a satire of all those Freudian psychodramas where secrets are unearthed and the now-psychologically unfettered characters emerge into the sunlight. Brooks must know that such revelations, even when valid, rarely translate into changes in behavior–mustn’t he? He doesn’t lay any blame at John’s own doorstep: The man’s only fault seems to have been choosing mates who would hate him as much as his mother does. The movie suggests that domestic bliss begins and ends with blaming Mom.

Brooks has slimmed down–his waist is noticeably smaller, and his pecs appear worked on–but he can’t hide the fact that he’s too old in spirit to be playing this role. He hasn’t got a fire in his belly, and so his character’s mission doesn’t have the urgency it takes to power a full-length movie. And something else worries me. When a gifted comic artist decides that it’s a sign of integrity to pass up a joke, he or she is in trouble–because the best jokes (I don’t mean the easy, reflexive ones, like most of the one-liners in Neil Simon plays and mediocre sitcoms) are shortcuts to a higher, more intense truth, and cover far more psychological ground than the prosaic realism of “serious” writers. Those jokes are the wellspring of Brooks’ art; and, in eschewing them, he seems to be engaging in a perverse form of self-denial. In one scene, Beatrice wonders aloud whether John’s vegetarianism has made his writing thinner. This is meant to be the ultimate, nonsensical subversion of a son’s self-esteem–but, in Mother, Brooks practices a kind of artistic vegetarianism, and I left the theater thinking Beatrice had been right.

John’s younger brother Jeff (Rob Morrow) on the picture-phone with Mother (Debbie Reynolds) (30 seconds):
{Sound01 - Mother1.avi or {Sound03 -; download time, 4.25 minutes at 56K {Sound01 - vr-seconds.asf for sound only

Mother’s brontosaurean block of frozen cheese (29 seconds):
Sound04 - Mother2.avi or Sound05 -; download time, 4.25 minutes at 56K Sound02 - movie-Mother2.asf for sound only