Oedipus Wrecks

Directed by Albert Brooks. Written by Brooks and Monica Johnson. Starring Albert Brooks, Debbie Reynolds, and Rob Morrow. Opens Friday, Jan. 10, at the Regency in S.F., the Jack London Cinemas in Oakland, and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

In Mother, Albert Brooks plays John Henderson, a science-fiction novelist, recently divorced from his second wife, who decides he can't risk another relationship until he comes to terms with his mother. So he does the logical thing: He moves in with her.

He hauls out of her garage all his old high-school bric-a-brac -- the trophies, the Jimi Hendrix and Barbarella posters, the Beach Boys albums -- and re-creates his old room. He also hauls out all his old resentments and annoyances. It's as if John and his mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds), had picked up where they left off 30 years ago without missing a beat. Their sparring is so practiced and timeworn they can raise hackles with just a moan or sigh.

Watching Mother, I was pulled between my long-held belief that Brooks is a comic genius and another feeling I often have at his movies: Why isn't the funniest man alive making the funniest movies ever made instead of these brilliant hit-and-miss jobs? It's not that Mother isn't good -- it has a few sequences that rank with his best (that is to say, anybody's best). But it also has a lot of poky, puttery, sort-of-funny stuff and a few renegade lapses into inexplicable high cheeriness.

The finale, for example, is so beribboned that at first you think Brooks must have surrendered to some studio-dictated happy ending. But Mother is nothing if not "personal," and as the film's director and co-writer (with Monica Johnson), Brooks was in a position to play God with his own hang-ups. He probably just decided to give himself a lift.

Once you settle into the realization that Mother isn't going to be great, you can sit back and roll with the good stuff. Even Brooks' half-realized ideas are often funnier than most filmmakers' full-fledged notions. Who else but he could have come up with the idea of leveling with your mother as a way to move on in the dating scene? It's Freud in slap shoes.

Beatrice, widowed and living in Sausalito, clearly prefers her other son, Jeff (Rob Morrow), a sharky/nerdy L.A. sports agent who lords his success over John and sucks up to her. Jeff gives her expensive baubles, like a video phone that she never quite figures out how to work. He's so competitive, he thinks being the king of mama's boys is a top prize.

John can't stand his brother, but like his mother Jeff is part of the central drama of his life. And without a wife or kids, what else has he to obsess over? John wants kids -- or, as he puts it, "I want to pass along my seed." But for now he has re-created himself as his own child. Beatrice, who hasn't a clue what he's up to, isn't eager to step into his time machine.

John wants some kind of reckoning from her, but she doesn't really want anything from him. That's what's so funny about his live-in visit -- the psychodrama is all on one side. While he sits in the kitchen bemoaning her halfhearted food offerings -- rock-hard cheese, cut-rate sherbet, wilted salad -- Beatrice putters about in a zonked haze. It's as if John were a hologram -- he's there, but he's not there.

Beatrice has been living by herself for a long time, and her routine doesn't include a son -- a vegetarian, no less -- who tries to pick apart her every motive. He does it to her because she does it to him, in a preconscious sort of way. Wherever they go together -- to the supermarket, restaurants, clothing stores -- she apologizes for him. She introduces John to friends as "my other son." To total strangers she recounts his woes -- not in sympathy, but as a kind of purgation. It's her way of separating herself from him. What she is really saying is, "He's mine, but he's not mine."

Brooks doesn't sentimentalize Beatrice's aloofness -- she really is the other kind. Reynolds appears to be a strange choice to play what might seem like a Shelley Winters part. But she's on Brooks' wavelength. She doesn't camp up the role or turn it into a Jewish-mother cartoon. Her Beatrice is an original: dazed and confused yet hyperacute about her own needs. Beneath her blandness she's a tough cookie. When her occasional suitor (Peter White) shows up to spend the night, she practically tells her shocked son to get lost.

The more we see of John's family, the more we understand why he writes science fiction. He'd like to be on another planet. Beatrice complains to him about his books without having read any of them. (When John mentions he's being asked to write a sequel, she responds, "Sequel to what?") She thinks he should be writing about "real people" instead of aliens with big heads. But for John, science fiction is reality; it's his life here on Earth that seems uncomfortably otherworldly. And yet John genuinely wants his mother's approval -- even though he doesn't really approve of her.

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