motherAlbert Brooks is the Stanley Kubrick of comedy¹: Every once in a great while, he descends from the mountaintop with another work of genius. Or at least that’s what Brooks’ cultists say. The problem with unprolific auteurs (unlike Woody Allen, who puts out a film a year with varying success) is that each new film from a Kubrick or an Albert Brooks is greeted in some quarters as if it were the next Star Wars chapter — with anticipation that no movie directed by a fallible human being could live up to.

Mother, coming as it does after five years of silence, may polarize his longtime fans, some of whom may complain that it isn’t as brilliant as his 1985 Lost in America. Of course it isn’t; Lost in America was Brooks’ 2001 — a masterpiece he’ll compete with forever. (I can picture him doing a depressed riff on that. “I wish I’d never made a great film,” he might moan.) But Mother is a sign that smart comedy is not lost in America.

The premise is irresistible. Brooks is John Henderson, a Los Angeles science-fiction novelist wrapping up his second divorce. John, like Brooks’ other protagonists, sets out on a quest to define himself and get to the root of his neurosis. He’s had bad luck with women; therefore he goes back to the original woman — his mother (Debbie Reynolds), who, he feels, never gave him the support or validation he needed. John moves back in with Mother, and the movie (written by Brooks and his frequent collaborator Monica Johnson) clicks into the usual Brooks structure: scene after scene of Brooks talking at someone. I say “talking at” because the comedy of Albert Brooks is that he hardly ever listens. He’s always justifying, defending, riffing, but never giving anyone the undivided attention he demands for himself.

In Mother, Brooks gives himself the ultimate sparring partner: the maternal source of the Albert Brooks persona. Scene for scene, the movie is intricately funny. As long as John and Mother are getting on each other’s nerves — about their tastes in food, mostly — Mother is Brooks’ most consistently solid comedy since Lost in America. Brooks does, however, err slightly in a go-nowhere subplot involving John’s kid brother (Rob Morrow), a prosperous sports agent. Morrow isn’t bad, but he doesn’t get any comic rhythms going with Brooks, and he doesn’t look or act like Brooks’ brother. Ben Stiller might have been a better match.

Debbie Reynolds, who’s getting all the kudos, is neither hateful nor cutesy — the two easy routes she could have chosen. She simply plays a believable woman who, it turns out, has hidden depths of character. Mother doesn’t change, but John’s perception of her does, and they have an honest talk that redeems Brooks’ attempt at a cozy Hollywood finish. At the end, John’s quest is complete: he’s found the source of his gifts as well as his neurosis. For our sake, though, I hope Albert Brooks isn’t cured. His fans, and the comedy genre itself, need him right where he is.

¹Kubrick, a fan of Brooks’ work, might have enjoyed the comparison.

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