In the comedies he has written and directed, Albert Brooks has tended to play anti-heroes who are so obsessed with being politically correct and “doing the right thing” that it never occurs to them how obnoxious they are. (In Brooks’ Real Life , he played a documentary filmmaker who nearly drove his subjects to nervous breakdowns.) But in Mother, Brooks has made a noble effort to meet his audience more than halfway, and he’s definitely worth the trouble.
Brooks plays John Henderson, a science-fiction writer who begins the movie in the middle of arranging his second divorce. (Trying to look at the bright side, John says of his ex, “She brought great furniture to the marriage.”) Doing some navel-gazing, John concludes that his problems with women stem from unresolved issues with his mother (Debbie Reynolds, in a welcome return to the movies). So he informs his mother that he wants to move back in with her as an “experiment.” The experimental situation includes returning his old room to its 1970’s splendor, complete with tacky posters and a stereo blasting at all hours of the night.
John’s mother has been widowed and on her own for many years, and she doesn’t take kindly to the thought of re-raising her son. But she gives as good as she gets, feeding John old food from her freezer (the freezer burn, she reasons, is a “protective coating”), and informing total strangers of John’s failures with women. Adding to the mix is John’s brother (Rob Morrow of TV’s “Northern Exposure”), who thinks Mom likes him better but is in for a few surprises.
Jackie Gleason used to say that he did a “nudge act” — you could watch blustery Ralph Kramden, nudge your partner, and say, “That’s my Uncle Charlie.” I haven’t known anyone who’s seen Mother who didn’t nudge me or anyone nearby and recognize themselves in the movie’s relationships. The scene where John returns home is nothing but a prolonged take of John and his mother eating and squabbling in the kitchen, and it’s probably the funniest piece of film that was shown in any theater in 1997.
I hope I haven’t made Mother sound like a dark, brooding comedy or a sappy sitcom about a grown-up kid and his mom. It’s the most intelligent sort of comedy — the kind that goes for truth instead of snappy one-liners. All of the performances are believable and some kind of wonderful, and Brooks’ screenplay (co-written with his long-time partner, Monica Johnson) proves that Brooks continues to be an underappreciated national treasure.