In the title role of Albert Brooks' "Mother," Debbie Reynolds returns to the screen triumphantly in a major role for the first time in 27 years. Reynolds, who remains a Las Vegas star trouper, is fondly remembered for the classic "Singin' in the Rain" (1952) and for her tremendous screen popularity, especially in the '50s, in other musicals and frothy comedies. Only rarely has she had the chance to reveal a more serious side, and "Mother"--although it, too, is a comedy--is one of those times.
Brooks, who wrote his script with Monica Johnson, casts himself as an L.A.-based science-fiction novelist, John Henderson, who's just gone through his second divorce and is beginning to suspect that there's a connection between his distant relationship with his mother and his failures with women. What to do but hit the road and return home to his widowed mother, Beatrice (Reynolds), at her comfortable family home in Marin County?
Pretty, 60-plus Beatrice seems glad enough to see her son but is taken aback at his determination to reconstruct his old room and settle in until he feels he's straightened himself out. The results are funny yet tremendously telling: This is not only one of Reynolds' best movies but also one of Brooks' best efforts. What wonderful powers of observation Brooks has, and what a knack he has for reminding us of how people allow--and use--petty annoyances with one another to distract them from truly connecting on important levels. His and Johnson's script gets it right from the beginning with mother and son differing over the merits of not eating meat and how long you can freeze a salad.
Gradually--and without losing its sense of humor--"Mother" makes us aware of how easy it is for parents and children not really to know one another. John seems to be reasonably successful as a writer but is not as rich or as close to his mother as his younger brother Jeff (Rob Morrow, very funny), an aggressive sports agent who is married with two children. To be sure, John eventually uncovers what he believes to be a significant reason why his mother may unconsciously resent him, but the real point is that John simply needs to get to know his mother much better than he does, to feel that she may actually love him, in order to understand and feel better about himself. Beatrice, in turn, might benefit as well.
All this unfolds in an essentially comic mode that takes a bemused look at Beatrice, opinionated, set in her ways, baffled by electronics, a bit distracted and absent-minded. Yet there's nothing cutesy in Reynolds' performance. Her Beatrice can be defensive, adept at deflating her son, and is amusing in her seemingly supreme imperturbability, yet underneath there's a strong, honest woman. Reynolds' self-confidence and old pro's perfect timing play beautifully against Brooks' usual neurotic mensch character. (At 49, Brooks is a little old to pass for 40; Reynolds is a sensational-looking 64.)
This well-crafted film is exceedingly sensitive, balanced and scaled in all its aspects. Everything is in proportion, nothing seems forced or excessive, and "Mother" achieves the quality of effortlessness that is the mark of true art.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for some sexual references. Times guidelines: The film has some brief, candid remarks about sexual relationships.
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Albert Brooks: John Henderson
Debbie Reynolds: Beatrice
Rob Morrow: Jeff
A Paramount presentation. Director Albert Brooks. Producers Scott Rudin and Herb Nanas. Screenplay by Brooks & Monica Johnson. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Harvey Rosenstock. Costumes Judy L. Ruskin. Music Marc Shaiman. Production designer Charles Rosen. Art director Charles Butcher. Set designer Pamela Klamer. Set decorator Anne D. McCulley. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
* At the Beverly Center Cineplex, Beverly Boulevard at La Cienega Boulevard, (310) 777-FILM, #172; AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City Shopping Center, (310) 553-8900; and AMC Santa Monica 7, 1310 3rd St. Promenade and Arizona, Santa Monica, (310) 395-3030.