Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mama Said

Albert Brooks’s 1996 film Mother is the underrated modern classic comedy (for those of us who saw it) that should have become required Mother’s Day viewing for the rest of recorded time.

The film is no fawning love letter or sentimental feel-good fraud that skirts real, substantive issues about human relations like conventional comedies.

The premise is simple yet restrained wackiness, if such a thing exists. Brooks plays a frustrated writer who has just finalized his second divorce. Sensing that his marital issues may have stemmed from a poor relationship with his retired mother (the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds), the son decides to stage an “experiment” by moving back in with her so that they could understand what makes him tick. He goes so far as to move back into his old bedroom in his childhood home and arrange it exactly the way he left it, complete with posters of Barbarella and 2001: A Space Odyssey. His mother is game, although somewhat befuddled by his rationale. 

Within moments of his arrival, mother and son are already at odds with something as basic as eating. Mother offers him various meat dishes for dinner, even though he is a strict vegetarian. When she offers him lamb and he declines, having already turned down beef stew and pastas in meat sauce, she replies, “I didn’t know if it was the animal you were siding with or the whole thing”. She also has a penchant for freezing all food items including salad, a slab of cheese the size of a hat box that expired three years ago, and sherbet. She insists that there is no way the food could have spoiled, and that the discolored sherbet is perfectly edible due to freezer burn that she mistakenly calls but sincerely believes to be a layer of “protective ice”. There’s also a parallel plot involving the writer’s younger brother, who despite being the more accomplished of the two sons, feigns incredulity at his brother’s experiment to disguise some thinly veiled jealousy (paging Dr. Freud).

What makes this film work so beautifully, asides from the two central performances, is the whip-smart dialogue by Brooks and his co-writer Monika Johnston. Here’s a sample exchange between mother and son at the grocery store:

Son: What do you think the most expensive jelly is?
Mother: I don’t buy jelly. I don’t know.
Son: [picking up a jar] Oh, this looks very good.
Mother: Oh honey, don’t get that.
Son: Why?
Mother: Because it’s too expensive, I mean that’s a waste of money. Look, look, look, you can get a whole jar here for $2.50. Now why would you want to spend $10.95?
Son: Because thank God, I can afford it, and it might be good. Come on Mother, let’s experience this together.
Mother: I don’t want this experience. You’re fooled by all these names and that fancy wrapping.
Son: I’m not fooled by anything. This is what the experiment is about. It’s not about being fooled, it’s about splurging. You see, I realize something. I think you treat yourself very cheaply. And I think you therefore instill that in me.
Mother I don’t treat myself cheaply at all. I lived through the Depression, you didn’t.
Son: The Depression! You were two!

This banter works well thanks to exquisite comic timing, handled with great aplomb by Brooks and Reynolds in a verbal pas de deux throughout the movie. In fact, the rhythm of dialogue in the entire film is timed and delivered in a way that makes a simple verbal exchange in an otherwise uneventful plot zip by furiously. Also, doesn’t this sound like an actual conversation you may have had with your mother at the grocery store?

There’s also a late-breaking revelation in the film that ties mother and son in an unexpected way, without delving into predictable Freudian territory. What’s most surprising is that the dialogue at this point in the film shows two people speaking like adults for the first time in the relationship, in a non-sentimental, believable manner. It is to this film’s credibility that the final resolution is not a fist-pumper or overwrought, but makes perfect sense.

While Mother hardly broke box-office records and was unjustly ignored by the Academy, especially for the masterful script and for Reynolds’s brilliant performance, every person the Blogger knows who has seen the film agreed that this film succeeds as a comic masterwork because it resonates on a personal level without coddling or insulting the viewer. In fact, the Blogger’s own mother enjoyed this film and was overheard speaking with a relative about how parts rang true with her own relationship with her mother.

Many of the Blogger’s friends became new mothers in recent years. This is, for all those mums, absolutely required viewing. And yes, see it with your mom, too, for good measure. Happy Mother’s Day.