Mother (1997)

In Mother, writer-director Albert Brooks explores the psychological minefield of mother-child relationships, and proves what anyone who has ever heard a Jewish mother joke (the humorous foundation upon which Mother is built) probably already knows: the Jewish mother is the archetype of all motherhood, the mother of all mothers. Overbearing, loving, misunderstanding maternity is a multi-cultural phenomenon.

Brooks is John Henderson, a moderately successful science fiction author who, after his third divorce, decides that the root of his problem with women is his relationship with his mother. So he moves back into Mom’s cozy suburban home in Sausalito, determined to hash things out. His sweet and daffy mother Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), doesn’t particularly want her middle-aged son there, so she pulls from her arsenal the simplest, most effective weapon known to motherhood: food. She attempts to feed her newly-arrived son all manner of ancient inedibles from her overstuffed freezer (why do you think they call it
iceberg lettuce?). Thus begins the first of many gentle skirmishes in Mother, a witty, lighthearted, domestic psycho-comedy.

For the most part, John is merely irritable, wearing a permanent expression of hang-dog exasperation as he and dear old mom fight about everything from peanut butter to parking. Reynolds, on the other hand, is wonderfully deft as the loving, honey-voiced mother whose sweet words are seasoned with a soupcon of acid. Beatrice isn’t even conscious of the constant butter-knife jabs she delivers, but her thin-skinned, tightly wound son is hypersensitive to them, and ready to pounce defensively at the slightest unintentional provocation. Not that he doesn’t dish it out as well; John’s most powerful weapon is to throw failure back in his mother’s face, proudly exhibiting himself as the miserable loser that he is just to prove that she was an inadequately supportive parent. Beatrice is seemingly oblivious, however, because, as a biological imperative, genetic compatibility breeds psychological incompatibility.

Somehow, it all comes off as affectionately comic rather than bitterly acrimonious in
Mother, thanks in large part to Reynolds’ ingenious, ingratiating performance. Reynolds is delightful as Beatrice, her performance so dead-on perfect that every word she utters can make you cringe with recognition. Yet she never overplays the poison, and her Beatrice is no Mrs. Bates; she comes off as a slyly dotty and well-meaning enigma, a woman who couldn’t stop saying the wrong things if she really, really tried -- that’s her job, she’s a mother.

In the absence of Beatrice,
Mother generally lapses into awkwardness, falling back on well-worn, obvious gags and incidental characters. That’s a fortunately small portion of the movie, which is for the most part concerned with offense and defense on the domestic front. When Reynolds and Brooks spar, Mother is at its subtle best, a war of wits, wiles and wills with two evenly matched opponents. The script by Brooks and Monica Johnson is loaded with shrewd observations, sly, sharp banter and a few Freudian revelations, as John eventually discovers that his mother is a lot more complex than he ever imagined.

Another filmmaker might have turned
Mother into a piously heartwarming bit of treacle, but not the acerbic Brooks. His Mother is sweet and sour, an engaging and likable film that cleverly turns the painfully familiar into something pungently funny.