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By Voice Film Critics
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By Alan Scherstuhl
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By Stephanie Zacharek
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Thirtyish guy—bit of a schlub but married, with a newborn baby—comes back from California to visit aging parents in New York and, overtaken by a mysterious lethargy, moves into his tiny childhood room. Momma's Man, directed by Azazel Jacobs from his own screenplay, is one of the sweetest, saddest stories Franz Kafka never wrote.
That Mikey (Matt Boren) grew up in a pre-gentrification, tin-ceilinged, wooden-floored lower-Manhattan loft with parents who were unreconstructed Jewish bohemians gives Momma's Man more than a dollop of local color; that Mikey's parents are played by the filmmaker's own, the artists Ken and Flo Jacobs, and the loft is the place where he actually grew up provides Momma's Man with considerable emotional resonance. At least for me.
Full disclosure: Although my most vivid memories of Aza Jacobs are as the unnamed infant installed in a crib in a Johnson City apartment and called, for what seemed like a very long time, "Mr. Baby," I've known his parents for nearly 40 years, going back to my undergraduate days at the State University of Binghamton, where Ken Jacobs impressed me as possibly the most brilliant film teacher in the world.
I'm also familiar with the Momma's Man milieu, specifically the Jacobs' loft—a fantastic assemblage of suspended bicycles, hanging chairs, film cans, wind-up toys, and philosophical machines, that—part studio, part archive—has struck more than one viewer as a character in the movie. And so, while I cannot evaluate Momma's Man with an outsider's clarity, I can vouch for the authenticity of its location (fascinatingly defamiliarized), as well as the uncanny naturalism (and fond exaggeration) with which Ken and Flo are written: Dad savoring a strange piece of music and propped up in bed, relaxing with a book called American Fascists; Mom questioning Dad's characterization of his work as "painting" and offering Mikey a "little bit of brownie."
Aza Jacobs isn't the first filmmaker to direct his parents. John Huston's father Walter had a major role in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; Zoe Cassavetes and her brother Nick have each directed their mother, Gena Rowlands; Martin Scorsese made a documentary about his parents and regularly gave them cameos. Plenty of people base films on family history but, so far as I know, Momma's Man is alone in approaching psychodrama by having the parents play themselves. And while many avant-garde filmmakers have made movies about their children, the younger Jacobs is the first of these kids to turn the camera on Dad in a feature-length narrative.
Momma's Man is highly specific, evoking not only the filmmaker's lost childhood but also the heroic New York art scene that had already begun to fade when the now 35-year-old Azazel Jacobs was a boy. But it is even more powerfully universal. Much comic pathos arises from the realization that Mikey has no perspective on his parents. They are as mysterious in their idiosyncrasies as anyone's. (And with his doughy physique and placid moon face, Boren gives the impression of an eternal child, if not one produced by this particular Mom and Dad.) Mikey's prolonged visit is not so much a regression as a blissful immersion in some pre-analytical Eden. Cluttered with charged objects, the magic loft is in itself an image of childhood. Mikey raptly rummages through his stuff, finding a costume cape, some angst-ridden teenage letters, and an old guitar. Quietly, he sings one of his high-school songs: "Fuck, fuck, fuck you—hope you die, too."
From the movie's first shot—a tight close-up of Mikey and Mom's interlocked hands—Momma's Man radiates unconditional affection. Unlike the Albert Brooks character in Brooks's not dissimilar Mother, Mikey doesn't have to struggle for parental love. On the contrary, he's helpless in the face of their concern. More touching than Mikey's attachment to his parents is the degree to which they bask in his pudgy presence and, against all reason, yearn for him to stay in their world. The key image has all three lying in bed raptly watching an old movie on TV. (In a sinister joke, it seems to be Chaplin's comedy of murder, Monsieur Verdoux.)
Bumped from his return flight, Mikey is initially confounded by airline bureaucracy. Soon, however, he is inventing reasons to stay in this nutty paradise. He ignores the increasingly desperate messages left by his abandoned wife (Dana Varon), preferring to sit in wintry Hudson River Park or lie on his narrow little bed in his semi-private corner of the loft, reading comic books, warding off dread, and letting his beard grow. Dad tries to amuse him by playing an old 78 ("Crazy Blues") or demonstrating a new crawling toy purchased in Chinatown. Few things in the movie are funnier than Dad's expectant smile and Mikey's blank-faced appreciation; nothing is more poignant than Mom's heartfelt assurance: "You can stay here as long as you want."
A bid for Kafkaesque happiness? Underscored by Mandy Hoffman's pensive, dryly whimsical piano compositions, Mikey's breakdown has the quality of a wistful nightmare. Space is elusive. The loft seems at once vast and claustrophobic and, although the viewer is treated to many slow pans, its geography is never clear. Mikey is forever spotting portents in the clutter or receiving mysterious bulletins (from the TV, the cell phone, and his own unconscious). In one unsuccessful attempt to leave the loft, he waits until his parents are asleep; perhaps they'll think they only imagined his visit.
Late in the movie, the filmmaker suggests that this child's dream is, in fact, a childhood dream. In a haunting bit of ancient footage, the actual little Azazel is seated at the same round wooden table that functions as the loft's fulcrum, head down, asleep beside an unfinished plate of spaghetti.
Like Momma's Man, Hamlet 2 concerns a childish man's struggle with adult responsibility and, as its title suggests, also a son's relation to his father. Not nearly as uproarious as it should be, Andrew Fleming's latest high-school farce premiered at the same Sundance Film Festival where Momma's Man made its debut and, after a spirited bidding war, was sold for a cool $10 million.
The movie, which Fleming wrote with South Park veteran Pam Brady, is a sort of backstage Bad News Bears in which a beleaguered high-school drama teacher (Steve Coogan) attempts to save his job by staging a musical sequel to the most famous play in the English language. (To add to the fun, his class is heavily salted with lovable, mainly Latino gangbangers.) One of the funniest men in England, Coogan here plays American—which is to say, he projects his character as a sincere idiot. Coogan will do anything for a laugh, and given how little he has to work with, he must. It's impressive that he can fill the screen, though he's still regularly upstaged by Catherine Keener in her specialty role as castrating spouse, never more inspired than when playing a scene with a margarita as big as a birdbath.
Perhaps because it deals with the anxiety of influence, Hamlet 2 is surprisingly sympathetic to writers: "Oh my God—writing is so hard!" Coogan exclaims at the word processor. He accepts advice from a 12-year-old drama critic and, in the grand finale, is saved by the national press, which rallies around the production as a free-speech issue. Not exactly Springtime for Hitler, the climactic musical features a "Raped in the Face" number and a familiar-seeming "Rock Me Sexy Jesus" routine in which a beatific, be-fright-wigged Coogan descends from the ceiling to intone: "Father, I forgive you." We know that the now-liberated actor is actually talking about his earthly dad. The show ends with Coogan still suspended in the air—not unlike the movie, which, not quite a parody, is something like a failed metaphor for itself.
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