The directorial debut of actress Christine Lahti (1995's "Hideaway"),
"My First Mister" features such a strongly developed and endearing first
half that it comes as somewhat of a major disappointment when the entire
project derails into a weepy, TV-movie-of-the-week melodrama. Featuring
revelatory performances from Leelee Sobieski (her third feature in a month,
after "The Glass House" and "Joy Ride") and Albert Brooks (1999's "The
Muse"), the film creates two characters we grow to care about and then
somehow transports them into a soppy, unfinished screenplay by the final
hour. It's a shame, too, because the picture had a lot going for it up
until that point.
Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski), who likes to be called "J," is a severely
unhappy 17-year-old who dresses like a Goth, complete with an all-black
wardrobe, innumerable piercings on her face, and a habit of
self-mutilating her arms. Just having graduated from high school, she
spends her time writing poetry and eulogies (her own), and longs to get
out of the house of her Betty Crocker-wannabe mother (Carol Kane) and
dense stepfather (Michael McKean).
While at the mall looking for a job, she spots a man working at a men's
clothing store and is allured by him. His name is Randall (Albert Brooks),
he's 49, and out of either mild attraction or pity, he hires J to be a
stocking clerk in the back. Randall and J don't outwardly appear to have
anything in common, but they gradually discover they are exactly alike:
lonely, scared, and unsure of where they stand in life. They form a
special bond with each other, becoming close friends, and have thoughts
of maybe taking it a little further.
It is at this point that "My First Mister" stops being about a relationship
between two fascinating outsiders, and forces in an out-of-the-blue twist
that feels as if it has come from another movie altogether. Replacing its
natural, lightly comical and sad tone with creaky plot machinations and
cluttered subplots, the film becomes little more than a chance to work
the actors' (and the audience's) tear ducts. Discredit director Lahti
and screenwriter Jill Franklyn for this calamitous pitfall; they both
should have known better.
What does manage to shine through are the lovely performances from nearly
the whole cast. Leelee Sobieski has been working overtime lately, and
out of her three pictures that have been released this year, this one
holds her standout performance (the other two were excellent, as well)
and, coincidentally, is the weakest of the trio. Usually cast as the
nice, blonde-haired good girl, Sobieski's appearance and acting style
is so radically different in "My First Mister" that it rarely feels as
if we're watching her at all. She effortlessly paints J as a complex,
sometime difficult individual whom we may not always understand, yet
can't help but learn to love. Albert Brooks is every bit her match, and
while he does fit in his usual barbed, funny comments, his character of
Randall is far more subdued and true-to-life than his previous work.
In her meatiest role in years, the underrated Carol Kane (1999's "Jawbreaker")
does strong, touching work as J's mother, a woman who masks her own
feelings of doubt with cooking, cleaning, and a nonstop rosy attitude.
Meanwhile, Mary Kay Place (1999's "Girl, Interrupted") makes an unpredictable
impression as a friendly nurse. Rounding out the cast, John Goodman (2001's
"One Night at McCool's") plays J's hippie-stoner stepfather; Michael
McKean (2000's "Little Nicky") is J's stepfather; and Desmond Harrington
(1999's "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc") is Randy, a young man
around J's age that enters into the proceedings near the end.
Aside from a reconciliation scene between J and her mom, and another set
at a dinner table, "My First Mister" goes so wrong so quickly that the
change is jarring. The incisive relationship formed between J and Randall
loses its impact, and scene after scene suddenly rings with an unshakable
falseness. At 109 minutes, "My First Mister" feels much longer, and doesn't
know when to quit. The outcome of the film is unfortunate; so much
promise was held, but the plot cruelly pulls the rug out from under
the hardworking actors.
Copyright © 2001 Dustin Putman