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My First Mister

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: My First Mister

Starring: Leelee Sobieski, Albert Brooks
Director: Christine Lahti
Rated: R
RunTime: 109 Minutes
Release Date: October 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

While relationships between older men and younger men are de rigeuer in the movies--considered far more acceptable than the reverse--when the age difference is more than, say, twenty years, a quirky kind of poignancy can result. This is the case with Christine Lahti's "My First Mister," which may be yet another story about two lonely people who find themselves by finding each other, but despite its undeserved sugary ending is effectively heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure. The presence of the wonderful Albert Brooks insures that the comic angle will not be ignored, and this time our Mr. Brooks, once Eddie Cantor's sidekick, is endearing as he was in his self- directed "Mother." Ms. Lahti, better known to the New York public as a stage performer with roles in "The Heidi Chronicles" and "Little Murders," uses Jill Franklyn's story effectively to bring out a quietly humorous and ironic side of the whimsical comedian.

Lahti opens on a teen who is alienated to the point of self destruction, the type of young woman we often seen in urban thoroughfares with pierced body parts and tattoos, but who in her suburban surroundings stands out as a Fellini-esque freak. As Jennifer, or J as she calls herself, Leelee Sobieski is recognizable more by her Helen-Hunt voice than by her physical resemblance to that celebrated actress. With jet black hair and rings on just about part of her head except, notably, her ears, Sobieski performs in the role of an outsider in her school, in her home and in her community. Surprisingly she is the only one in her English class with the punk attire and bejeweled physiognomy, her long sleeves covering a series of self-inflicted cuts that rest just above bold tattoos. Possessing a mother, Mrs. Benson (Carol Kane), who jabbers and does not listen to her only child, a cipher of a stepdad (Michael McKean), and hostile stares in a conservative shopping mall, she is the type of person who can be saved only if she could somehow run into a like individual- -which she does in the guise of mild-mannered but amusing 49- year-old clothing store owner, Randall (Albert Brooks). Though Randall's first instinct is to chase her out of his store, he apparently sees something in this girl that allows him to hire her first as a stock-room clerk only to move her up to salesperson after he gets her to dispense with her confrontational makeup.

"My First Mister," which opened the Sundance festival in January 2001, treats these soul mates as people attracted to each other by both their differences and their affinities. He dresses conservatively, not only to please his customers but to keep a low profile as though announcing to the world that his life is stable but sad. She announces herself as heavy metal, attiring herself to fit in with a young urban crowd but despite her hangout at a punk coffee shop known as The Bourgeois Pig, she is ignored by everyone her own age, not excepting the kids in her class with "pretentious names like Ashley." As they meet during business hours, they begin to work on each other's flaws, she determined to loosen up the haberdasher, he bent on bringing out her natural good looks. Most important, both see themselves as needing the warmth and comfort of friends and family, providing both until they can go out into the larger community to make their way.

Tension is generated as the audience ponders the limits of their affiliation. Obviously friendship is involved but what about the sexual attraction that lies just under the surface? As she is a girl with no friends her own age, we can hypothesize that the plump forty-nine year-old who is blessed with empathy as well as a solid sense of humor can appeal. When he invites her to his home and both simply lie back to catch a few winks, she at one point places his hand under her blouse. The film would be fine were we to examine a bond between two people of diverse generations, each serving alternately as mentor to the other. What make the film work big time is the barely expressed sexual tension which provides much of the spark in the connection.

John Goodman's brief and not credible role as the girl's natural dad, a unreconstituted hippy in his early fifties, is the film's only weak point. Otherwise, Carol Kane is fine as the not-so-atypical mom, existing on the fringe of her daughter's life, not really knowing how to listen and give forceful guidance to her suicidal daughter. "My First Mister" is delightfully quirkly, providing smiles and tears and while it is marketed as an arty work would at no time be inaccessible to a broad film audience.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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