ICYMI: Mother (1996)
Despite a prolific career in both TV and film, I’m not sure that Albert Brooks gets his due. His resume as a performer includes voiceover work (“The Simpsons,” Finding Nemo), comedic relief (Unfaithfully Yours, Critical Care), effective villains (Out of Sight, Drive), award-worthy support (Concussion) and even an Oscar nomination (Broadcast News). But on top of this, he is also a gifted filmmaker. After getting his start in the very first season of SNL with a series of satiric short films (my favorite being “Show Us Your Guns”), he found notoriety with 1979’s Real Life. In the film, he plays a version of himself as a fledgling documentarian trying to chronicle a year in the life of an average American family. The film was obviously ahead of its’ time in terms of a society that would one day worship the creation of “Reality TV” and features a wonderfully deadpan Charles Grodin.
This was followed by Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World. Albert Brooks has a knack for finding humor where people take themselves too seriously. He is also a keen observer looking to interject logic into situations where it doesn’t seem to belong. If he had just been an actor, Albert Brooks would have had an impressive career. The fact that he is a vaunted filmmaker to boot is even more impressive.
My favorite of Albert Brooks’ cinematic creations would have to be 1996’s Mother (not to be confused with 2017’s Mother!) The film stars Brooks in the guise of protagonist John Henderson. As the film starts, he is finalizing his second divorce and is at his wit’s end. There’s an early litmus test for the audience in terms of comedy as we watch Brooks in a nearly empty house try to place his one remaining chair in a comfortable spot. The exclamation point is the phone order he places, the one thing that I’m guessing most abruptly divorced individuals would want to order for that first night alone. Hint: it’s not a hooker.
After a disastrous blind date with Lisa Kudrow (at her most Ursela-ist), John decides it’s time to re-evaluate his life choices and most importantly try to get at the root of his inability to connect with another woman. Being the writer that he is (far from a successful best seller), he decides to examine his own origin story and get to the heart of his relationship with his own mother (played by Debbie Reynolds in an Oscar-worthy turn). Mother Henderson aka Beatrice is understandably aghast at A) why her son wants to stay with her for an extended period of time and B) why he seems to blame her for his shortcomings. Adding Oedipal fuel to the fire is Jeff, the seemingly “chosen son” in the clan, played to perfection by Rob Morrow. Jeff is the type of sports agent who name drops so much, each conversation requires a dustpan.
The heart of the film is the co-habitation between John and his mother. In what is skeptically referred to as “The Experiment,” we see a grown man move home and re-create the room of his youth. The scenes between Brooks and Reynolds are a series of perfectly crafted tennis matches with each insight, jibe and passive aggressive remark returned effortlessly. Surprisingly, there is very little cruelty in this film. You can sense that while John has never understood his mother and her quizzical ways, he is making a genuine effort. And Beatrice, while initially put upon does her best to let things play themselves out.
The are many funny and insightful scenes in Mother but the one that hit home for me happens when John takes his mother to the mall. While John is trying on pants, he catches Beatrice making her version of “small talk” with a clerk. She is going into unnecessary detail about John’s recent divorce to a perpetual stranger. In the spirit of justifiable “one-upmanship,” John takes his dear mother into a Victoria’s Secret and…..you should see. That scene is for anyone with an overbearing mother who feels the need to explain and share with no sense of boundaries with anyone within earshot.
In the end, John does get to the heart of his strained relationship with his mother (maybe a little too easy for my taste) but Albert Brooks isn’t in the business here of making some kind of grand statement about family or that our mothers are always to blame for everything. Mostly, he’s fascinated with the imperfections that we as human beings must learn to accept. He finds truth and beauty in the messiness that is human nature.
But the film is really a showcase for Debbie Reynolds. In her sixty-plus year career in Hollywood, you never so her bring a more multi-faceted character to life than here as Beatrice Henderson. She’s the kind of mom that always “means well” and tries to overcome her perceived shortcomings by making sure her guests are well fed. What seems to start as a caricature of an endlessly fussy and benignly domineering mother has many layers to be peeled over her many conversations with a son she never knew. Watching her grow and mature over the course of the film is a master class in acting.
Not sure if Albert Brooks has more to say as a filmmaker since his last release was in 2005 but we as filmgoers have been gifted more than enough. He may not have the breadth or volume of Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, but he has own distinct comedic niche and each of his films is a unique gem.