2 stars (out of four)
Mother love can be smothering, the sometimes uncomfortable topic of "Introducing the Dwights," an Australian dramedy about a woman whose show business aspirations cloud her maternal perspective.
Jean Dwight (Brenda Blethyn) hovers on the outskirts of professional entertainment, delivering her bawdy comedy routine--she's billed as stand-up's "raunchiest homemaker"--at humdrum locales whose acts include magicians and soft striptease. Her day job is in a restaurant kitchen, where she amuses other staff with foodstuff sculptures of genitalia.
And she tends, more or less, to her two sons, Tim (Khan Chittenden), who works as a mover, and Mark (Richard Wilson), a victim of brain damage from birth. She is a woman who wins points for her love and treatment of this disabled son, an aspect of the film that director Cherie Nowlan handles with charm and pert humor.
But Jean's career dreams make her too possessive, too needy of her kids' support. Jean can't let Tim go--he has become her surrogate husband, replacing the boys' father, another show-biz wannabe with a job as a security guard. Living separately, Dad plays a minimal role in the boys' lives, kind-hearted but too afraid of his estranged wife to be of any use. Terrified of her own professional failure, Jean seems convinced that she still has a future as long as the boys don't grow up.
But handsome Tim meets a new girl (Emma Booth) on one of his moving jobs, and despite what's portrayed as his almost pathological shyness, he seems determined to make something of this relationship. Jean and the girl clash at once (there are hints she helped ruin earlier budding romances), and the rest of "Introducing the Dwights" charts Tim's disentangling of the apron strings and Jean's resulting collapse as son, youth and ambition flee the coop.
The movie successfully balances the sentimental and bittersweet only about half the time. The performances are intelligent and well-crafted, and Blethyn is unmistakably a star performer, attracting attention like a vortex. But she's somewhat miscast here. Her specialty's a quivering vulnerability, but that's off for Jean, who seems inspired more by the likes of Bette Midler or Roseanne Barr--bulldozers outside, squishy underneath. Blethyn wears her kind heart on a tear-stained sleeve, and the hard, selfish moves Jean enacts aren't believable from so delicate a persona. The psychology here borders on the ugly, while the comedy stays light, a contrast that doesn't work a lot of the time.
The final crisis is idiotic and the denouement too easy. An ineffectual side show about a neighbor Jean once fought with who's now dying from cancer is one example of where scriptwriter Keith Thompson falls victim to the schematic. The acting, however, is choice. Blethyn puts on quite a show, Chittenden is understated and convincingly sweet, Wilson offers a fresh and three-dimensional portrait of someone disabled, and Booth has edge and earthiness as a girl out of her league in a family blinded by the spotlight.
'Introducing the Dwights'
Directed by Cherie Nowlan; screenplay by Keith Thompson; produced by Rosemary Blight; photographed by Mark Wareham; edited by Scott Gray; music by Martin Armiger; production design by Nell Hanson; produced by Rosemary Blight. A Warner Independent Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:44. MPAA rating: R (for sexual content and language).
Jean - Brenda Blethyn
Tim - Khan Chittenden
Mark - Richard Wilson
Jill - Emma Booth