EW’s critic: The visionary ”Momma’s Man”
I go to Sundance looking for good films. What I’m really out to discover, though, isn’t just a film but a voice — the sound of a filmmaker speaking to me, and doing it in a way I’ve never heard before. I’m looking for a vision.
I found it this year when I saw Momma’s Man, a beautiful, wise, shaggy, poker-faced comedy of discombobulation that does nothing less than re-invent — and purify — that Sundance staple, the quirky, angst-ridden family drama. The writer-director, Azazel Jacobs, is the son of the venerable avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs, and what Jacobs (the younger) has done is to merge his own life into fiction by casting his parents as the parents in the movie — and, just as vital, by shooting nearly all of it in their ancient Manhattan loft apartment, a supersize hole-in-the-wall that turns out to be one of the most spectacularly vivid and eccentric natural-born movie sets I’ve ever seen. Divvied into nooks and crannies and aisles and cubicles, and jammed from floor to ceiling with books, records, toys, recording equipment, and God knows what other multitudes of bric-a-brac, it’s a pack-rate maze that’s practically a city unto itself, and it becomes the landscape for a stirring tale of regeneration.
Mike (Matt Boren), the schlump of a protagonist, is quietly freaking out about the fact that he’s a husband and a new daddy (he lives in Los Angeles). During a business trip to New York, he stops off to visit his parents — and refuses to leave. He regresses, sorting through his childhood memorabilia, calling up an old girlfriend, generally behaving like a depressed high-school sophomore. It’s a scenario that sounds cute as hell, and might have been if it weren’t for the fact that Jacobs works in a style that recalls early Jim Jarmusch, only more so. Ken and Flo Jacobs, as the parents, are a found-object comedy team: the Nichols and May of wacked, monosyllabic New York bohemia. They are also authentically dear. Ken is like Harpo Marx aged into a gray-haired Marxist intellectual, and Flo, smothering her Mikey with love (hence the title), is like a Modigliani come to life. The comedy emerges from their pricelessly awkward silences. This is an urban-ethnic household in which the stereotypical ”shouting” is replaced by a kind of benign puttering, yet every glance, every gesture, every comment speaks a thousand loaded words. Mikey eventually does wander outside the loft, looking up his old buddy, a freaked-out war vet with a scary grin. When this dude stands up and sings, with utter passion, along to the Indigo Girls’ ”Closer to Fine,” it’s a gorgeously ironic pop epiphany, as the song’s prescription for how to live gets turned, on its head, into a warning to Mikey to start living beyond prescriptions. Momma’s Man is a movie that forces you to slow your rhythms, but it’s a work of true spirit, a voice in the din.
NEXT PAGE: Owen Gleiberman’s thoughts on Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind, and Patti Smith: Dream of Life
Michel Gondry is a rock star at Sundance. Before the premiere of his latest fancy, Be Kind Rewind, the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was surrounded by television cameras, and then, on the stage, he got a hero’s cheering ovation. It’s not hard to see why. Many Sundance filmmakers have gone onto mainstream careers, but you could give Michel Gondry all the studio backing in the world, as well as a budget of $100 million, and what he’d come up with, in every frame, would be an independent film. He wouldn’t know how to think otherwise; caprice — visual, emotional, structural — is hard-wired into his nervous system.
Be Kind Rewind has a premise that’s so silly-fizzy-catchy, so whimsically out there, so completely and utterly Gondry, you almost can’t believe he had the tenacity — or the innocence — to see it through. The principal setting is a tumbledown, ramshackle video store — and I do mean grimy VHS, not DVD — in Passaic, NJ, where Jack Black, as a guy who likes to hang around the store, has a radioactive accident, gets literally magnetized, and ends up erasing all of the store’s tapes. You’d think that this would be a medical crisis more than a video-store crisis, but no: Black and the store’s chief clerk, played with winning unflappability by Mos Def, decide to restock the place by shooting their own hand-made, home-movie versions of Ghostbusters, Rush Hour, Boyz N the Hood, and many others. They’re like Ed Wood making tin-pot blockbusters out of Scotch tape and cardboard and, at one point, a pizza placed under someone’s head to look like blood on the sidewalk. Be Kind Rewind is a trifle that is also, at moments, a delightfully daft tale of pure-hearted, brain-dead movie love. (Its antecedents include both those great staged cinema re-enactments in Rushmore and the fabled shot-by-shot kiddie remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I loved its anyone-can-make-art spirit, yet Gondry, I have to say, would really do well to stop writing his own scripts. Except for Eternal Sunshine, his movies, including this one, are such light souffles that they barely stick to your ribs, or to anywhere else.
The documentary Patti Smith: Dream of Life was produced in association with public television, so I figured that it would be an attempt to squeeze the life of the great rag-doll punk priestess into the traditional PBS format of thoroughly archived, squarely shaped portraiture. I should only have been so lucky. The movie turns out to be a woozy and naïve art ramble. It was shot over a period of 12 years, during which Smith spent a lot of time sitting around an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel and visiting the graves of people like Blake and Rimbaud. She is a charming, and sometimes cutting, survivor, still haunted by the death of her husband, Fred ”Sonic” Smith, in 1994. But where’s the footage we most want to see, of Smith back when she was the fire-throated poet-revolutionary of CBGB’s? The movie treats her ’70s heyday as if it were some trivial prelude to her middle age, and to the film’s own tediously ”poetic” present-tense noodling.