The mother of all misfires

Times Staff Writer

Not long into "Because I Said So," which stars Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore as a mother and daughter bound by a mutual dependence so neurotically obsessive it makes the affair in "Last Tango in Paris" look breezy and wholesome, I was reminded of the pancake-wrapped sausage that Jon Stewart has been waving around lately on "The Daily Show."

It may not seem immediately apparent, but "Because I Said So" and breakfast-on-a-stick share a great deal in common: a fresh-from-the-R&D-lab; quality common to food that's engineered to be "fun" but is actually sad, an utter lack of nutritional value combined with a surfeit of kidney-macerating toxins -- they combine certain recognizable properties that have been distorted into something unrecognizable and scary.

Keaton is like the sausage too, as she has been reduced to a set of basic features (neurotic isolation, emotional frigidity, clumsiness) served up in the most infantilizing manner. After the injury of the movie will no doubt come the insult of negative reviews that will nonetheless predict a modest success with female audiences. A depressing example of what passes for a "woman's picture" in a not exactly woman-friendly media era, it's the kind of mother-daughter movie you can take your mother to (I did), only to have her take offense at the condescension and wonder "how the smart, professional people who supposedly made it can look at that and think it's good."

The story hinges on Milly Wilder's (Moore) knack for picking bad-news boyfriends and her mother Daphne's (Keaton) fear that she'll wind up alone like her. To avert Milly's imminent spinsterhood, Daphne places a personal ad, then settles into a hotel bar for the afternoon to interview candidates worthy of her daughter. A handsome musician named Johnny (Gabriel Macht), looks on as Daphne suffers through the requisite gallery-of-losers montage, eventually stepping in to save her. But Daphne only has vicarious eyes for Jason (Tom Everett Scott), a smug and bossy architect. Jason's Zen loft, we know, will prove no match for Johnny's cozy Venice bungalow, adorably foul-mouthed moppet and sexy dad (Stephen Collins), whose sexiness will not be wasted.

That's the story, such as it is, but it's obscured by the emotional abuse that passes for mother-love in the film. As a caterer, Daphne's specialty seems to be the precarious transportation of large cakes through very busy areas, with predictably disastrous results. As a mother, she is shrill, meddling, overprotective and pathologically controlling. Or rather, this is the generous picture of her I got from the press materials. After watching the movie, I was convinced that Daphne had been trained in psychological torture methods by the Brazilian army. (I even think I recognized at least one effective tactic from an excellent documentary on Abu Ghraib I saw at Sundance.)

Daphne sends Milly off to flirt with handsome strangers with last-minute reminders of her physical flaws and encourages her to remember her shortcomings when selecting a mate. Milly responds to Daphne's constant intrusions by telling her mother she loves her 10 times per conversation, a troubling verbal tic I'm confident experts would identify as a symptom of Stockholm syndrome.

Directed by the once (as in one time) inspired Michael Lehmann, whose epochal 1989 "Heathers" helped change the tenor of girl-centric movies, and written by Karen Leigh Hopkins and Jessie Nelson, who gave us "Stepmom," "Because I Said So" is not so much phoned in as it is auto-dialed with a text-to-speech prerecorded message in one of those creepy robotic voices.

From its very first sequence -- a wedding triptych in which her two elder daughters are married off while her youngest is apparently consigned to follow in her mother's own wedding-catering, perennially single footsteps -- the movie sets about to methodically trace every romantic comedy cliche in the book. Keaton and Moore shriek, squeal, bicker and continually run afoul of pastry. Elder daughters Maggie (Lauren Graham), a psychologist, and Mae (Piper Perabo), a nymphomaniac, constantly shock mom with the raunchy details of their sex lives. (After the screening, the ladies' restroom was abuzz with the theory that no woman could have ever written the screenplay, because not a woman on Earth would be that graphic in front of her mother.)

From the first cake-in-the-face to the final public declaration of love, which takes place during a cooking class for seniors and inspires a spontaneous septuagenarian orgy, "Because I Said So" rejects recognizable (and therefore funny) human behavior for a formula so trite it became self-parodic long ago. Watching it, you can't help but wonder why anyone bothers. But maybe there's a clue in the title -- joyless and rote, it feels like the grim execution of orders, the foot-stomping compliance to arbitrary rules that make no sense.


"Because I Said So." MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual content in dialogue and partial nudity. Running time: 1 hour and 42 minutes. In general release.

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