Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 13, 2021)
For Albert Brooks’ fifth effort as writer/director/actor, we head to 1996’s Mother. In this flick, Brooks plays John Henderson, a popular science-fiction writer.
Though successful in his profession, John fares less well in his personal life. As he finalizes his second divorce, John decides to confront the issues he encounters with how he relates to women.
John decides that his concerns relate to his relationship with his mother Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds). To facilitate this, he moves back home to live with her, a choice that creates a lot of conflicts.
Largely inspired by my recent viewing of 1991’s Defending Your Life - Brooks’ fourth feature – I decided to delve into his back catalog. I already wrote up 1985’s Lost In America back in 2017, but I took in 1979’s Real Life and 1981’s Modern Romance not long before I got to Mother.
I have to admit Brooks’ first two movies disappointed me. Brooks started with short films, and perhaps it took him a while to figure out how to create a project worthy of feature length.
Though not without flaws, Lost and Defending worked better, as Brooks managed to turn them into fairly coherent stories. Sure, they could still come across as episodic, but they flowed better, and that trend continues with Mother.
Actually, the best aspect of Mother stems from the interactions between Brooks and Reynolds. I don’t really buy them as mother and son – they just don’t seem related – but the pair work so well together that I can ignore those issues.
As usual, Brooks plays the “Albert Brooks Character”, but he seems more at ease here than he did in those earliest films. Even if I don’t truly swallow Reynolds as his mother, the pair show an easy chemistry.
“Easy” could also describe a lot of the jokes, as Brooks doesn’t exactly tread fresh paths in terms of mother/son conflicts. Mom is stubbornly frugal and doesn’t understand modern technology – those kinds of jokes date back forever.
Nonetheless, Brooks finds funny ways to explore these tired concepts, so they seem less beaten-down than might become the case. Though I don’t know if I’d call Mother a knee-slapper, it prompts a good array of laughs.
Again, the connection between Reynolds and Brooks becomes key. She seems too young and too “all-American” to be his mother, but their chemistry works to overcome those issues.
My biggest complain about Mother stems from its subplot that involves John’s younger brother Jeff (Rob Morrow). Whereas John suffers from a strained relationship with Beatrice, Jeff remains a mama’s boy who seems unable to cut the umbilical.
As a story on its own, Jeff’s tale could work. However, as part of this particular film, the Jeff elements seem superfluous and they go nowhere.
Brooks simply doesn’t devote the energy or running time necessary to create the John/Jeff friction necessary for the sibling elements to succeed. Jeff never meshes with the rest of the story, and all the time we spend with him seems wasted, as the film really should concentrate on John/Beatrice instead.
Despite that misstep, Mother becomes a winning comedy. It lacks relationship insights but it offers enough entertainment to compensate.
Footnote: at one point, John berates Jeff because he spent $50,000 on a Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card. Jeff made the right call: 25 years later, that same card sold for $5 million.