Oedipus wrecks

Albert Brooks keeps asking, "Mother, may I?" and the answer's a resounding...maybe

Brooks' tug of war is a lot closer to the truth of family relationships than most of the syrupy family-style movies gumming up the multiplexes. But like John, Brooks ultimately doesn't really want to alienate anybody. He's a good Jewish boy beneath the hardheadedness. Mother is set up to be a stranger and more daring comedy than the offhandedly genial jest it turns out to be.

Brooks includes a scene in which John gets back at his mother by taking her to shop at Victoria's Secret, but he doesn't bring anything special to the moment; it's a Freudian gag without the Freud or the gag. He doesn't play up in Mother the wide streak of obnoxiousness in his repertoire; his John isn't mile-a-minute manic or overbearing like the characters he played in Real Life or Modern Romance or Lost in America. He's more like the cooled-out worrier from Defending Your Life--the first Brooks movie in which I thought maybe La-La Land finally got to him. (Watching that film made me feel like Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers when he realizes even his main squeeze is a pod.)

Brooks is mellowing in ways that could prove problematic. It could be that he overvalues niceness. (It's the same problem Steve Martin, another wild original, has in spades right now.) Or it could be that, for Brooks, being "nice" is the ultimate weirdness. Even at his most cooled-out, his geniality carries an edge--you keep waiting for the put-on to pay up. Facetious, barely stifling his aggravation, Brooks plays characters who are perpetually nonplused at the world; they may be smarter than everybody else, but the joke is how little that smartness counts. Brooks' brains beleaguer him; it's the dim and the unobsessed who thrive.

In Mother, Brooks is trying for something beyond mere laughs. He's cooked up the idea that John can dispose of his mother complex by learning about her life--by seeing her as a "real" person. But the essence of Brooks' art is that the closer you get to someone, the less real they are. The dirty little secret in Brooks' comic universe is that people who might at first seem like caricatures turn out to be caricatures. He stages a dinner-date scene in Mother with an IQ-challenged blonde (Lisa Kudrow) that is a peerless piece of political incorrectness. (Nobody does dating rituals better.) Brooks shouldn't have to get all winsome with us. He's already won us over with his smarts.

That's also the way Woody Allen used to win us over, but the bullnecked Brooks is flukier and doesn't come equipped with Allen's full table-setting of cultural accoutrements. Brooks' cultural references aren't tony; he's still pumped with counterculture pop--like Hendrix and Barbarella. For John Henderson, moving back into his old room from high school isn't a stretch--it's a confirmation. Without even trying for it, Brooks embodies the nutty waywardness of his generation. He's the kind of comic artist you look forward to growing old with. He should not go gentle into that good night.

Starring Albert Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, Rob Morrow, Peter White. Screenplay by Brooks and Monica Johnson. Directed by Brooks. Now showing.

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