When you think of movies about mothers and daughters, a number of classics likely spring to mind: “Terms of Endearment,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Postcards from the Edge,” and perhaps others. Yet, when I thought about mother-son movies, only two came to mind.
The first film was “Mother,” the funny 1996 film that starred Albert Brooks (who also co-wrote and directed the movie) and the late, great Debbie Reynolds (who played the title character).
The second movie to come to mind was, of course, “Psycho.”
Today, we will look at “Mother” and perhaps next year, we’ll tackle Hitchcock’s touching classic.
In “Mother,” Brooks played John Henderson, a 40-year-old author, who, at the beginning of the movie, is finalizing his second divorce. While conducting a post-mortem on his marriage, John realizes that both of his ex-wives, and most of the other women in his life, shared one important feature: they never supported him.
Convinced that his romantic troubles with women mirror his relationship with his mother (whom he always calls “Mother,” just like Norman Bates did), he decides to move back into Mother’s house (his father is long dead) to conduct an experiment. As he explains (several times, in fact) to a doubting Mother, if he can figure out his issues with her, he will be able to figure out his love life.
At first, John seems to be overly critical of Mother. Sure, she’s not perfect. She buys only generic brand food and stores blocks of cheese in the freezer. She doesn’t know how to use call waiting on her phone or how the television works (“it’s too green”). She repeatedly drives past the same open parking spot. Still, Mother seems like a polite, caring woman.
As the movie progresses, though, it becomes clear that Mother does have issues with John that are expressed passive-agressively. She refers to him as “the Other Son.” Every compliment she gives him is accompanied by a critique (“honey, you look good but your hair is thinning”). She wishes that he would write “real stuff” instead of science fiction. Perhaps worst of all, she is constantly sharing negative information about his life with her friends and even strangers.
Mother’s over-sharing infuriates John, although he later obtains his revenge when he brings Mother into Victoria’s Secret to buy her crotchless panties.
Although Mother denies it, it appears that she prefers her younger son, Jeff, a very successful sports agent. Mother and Jeff talk every day and appear to have only one issue between them; they are too close. In fact, it wouldn’t have been weird if Jeff had echoed Norman Bates’s “best friend” comment above. Correction; it would have been weird, but it also would have been in character.
Despite Mother’s doubts and feelings, she plays along with John’s experiment. They shop together at the grocery store and mall. One night, John takes her to dinner at a nice restaurant. Throughout it all, they talk and they bicker. Mother thinks John blames her for his problems, and while he denies that, he truly does, at least to some extent. After one of John’s accusations, Mother responds “you know, dear, you misunderstand me” to which John replies “I know, and vice versa.”
However, as they bicker and hang out, they learn more about each other. For instance, John discovers that Mother is an excellent typist and has a male friend (not an intimate friend; they just “have sex”).
John’s understanding grows more when he rummages through a box of Mother’s things that he found in storage. His discovery leads to an argument, reconciliation, and later an epiphany for both people.
Brooks and Reynolds are both great in the movie. Brooks is, well, he’s like every other Albert Brooks character: neurotic and self-obsessed, but also likable and humorous. He may blame Mother at times, but one never doubts that he loves her. It’s also clear that he blames himself for his relationship failures.
In her first feature film in twenty-seven years, Reynolds played Mother deftly. She displayed the stereotypical, amusing characteristics of a senior woman (i.e., not understanding how technology works), but she’s not a moron either. Reynolds gave Mother intelligence, wit, and, when the time comes, awareness of her own limitations and failures.
“Mother” is a funny, entertaining movie that, except for a couple of dated moments, timelessly captures the struggles between a parent and a child. “Mother” also demonstrates that family conflicts often arise not because someone is necessarily to blame but because the family members don’t understand each other (and, possibly themselves), although they think they do.
Perhaps that doesn’t explain the familial conflict in “Psycho,” but that’s a conversation for next year’s Mother’s Day.
See you then and Happy Mother’s Day!