Monday, October 6, 2008

EIFF: Momma's Man

American movies generally don't do maturity well. This probably sounds like specious generalizing considering my last two posts were about American films possessing mature worldviews (Rachel Getting Married and Sugar, in case your scroll function is mysteriously disabled), but I think the point is still valid. Between Hollywood escapism and the sort of cynicism and violence that often characterize movies marketed at adults, there isn’t much room for a film that opts for a more considered approach to life. Even the independents aren’t much help at this point, with the current vanguard of young filmmakers preoccupied with solipsistic stories about twenty-somethings falling in and out of love (I’m talking about mumblecore here, and may you all have mercy on me for using that ridiculous term).

None of my curmudgeonly carping should discount the fact that good cinema can arise from any of these groups; I certainly don’t want to make any blanket dismissals here. I just want to make a point that maturity is a rather neglected theme, which is why Momma’s Man is so welcome and ultimately so disappointing.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs, the film tells the story of Mikey, who, after visiting his parents in New York, finds he is unable to return to his wife and new-born child in California for reasons purely psychosomatic. Staying with his parents is a kind of prolonged adolescence, and he seems unable to give it up. He begins to lie to everyone—his wife, his coworkers, his parents—in a vain, self-defeating effort to remain inside that place of comfort and security. He begins to steep himself in talismans from his past, reading comic books and old notebooks from high school. In one particularly funny scene, he even plays an angst-ridden song aimed at a former girlfriend that he wrote as a teenager (the chorus, delivered in a whisper because his parents are trying to sleep, is mostly just, “Fuck / Fuck / Fuck / Yoooouuuuu!”).

Despite such moments of humour, the film is underlined with melancholy. Jacobs casts his own parents as Mikey’s parents in the film, and the apartment used in the film is the actual Jacobs home. The film is often at its most poignant as an affectionate portrait of Jacobs’ parents. Surely any adult who has stayed with their parents for a few days will recognize this situation and identify with Mikey’s desire to stay there, freed of responsibility. But behind that desire is the knowledge that this sanctuary is beginning to fade away. When Mikey is talking to his wife at one point, he justifies staying in New York by telling her, “You don’t know what it’s like to watch your parents grow old.” He back pedals right after he speaks (presumably her parents are dead), but the words show the rest of the film in a strange light, making it seem as if Jacobs is casting his own future sorrow over the death of his parents as the subject of the film.

Sadly, the film only glances that emotion. More often, it retreats into its humour, which, while at times enjoyable, lacks any real traction in the story—it has nowhere to go in the rather barren landscape of the film. Mikey’s continual lying casts a dark shadow over the film’s more whimsical moments, but Jacobs doesn’t really know how to handle it. Even when Mikey’s father discovers his son's lying ways, nothing comes of it. Now, I don’t expect a film with this kind of quiet, fragile mood to resort to shouting melodramatics, but a film that doesn’t seem to believe in consequences can’t help but feel a little inconsequential.

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