My First Mister
review by Elias Savada, 12 October 2001

Opposites attract, sometimes making for interesting movies. In the old-versus-young-odd-couple sub-genre, social and cultural beliefs, embellished by good direction, writing, and acting, can make such a film (or any film) rise or fall. Ghost World, still playing after great critical response and well-deserved positive word of mouth, is the cinematic torch bearer in this year's generational battlefield. One of my favorites in this category is 1972's Harold and Maude, a black comedy involving an offbeat relationship between two people (Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon) separated by sixty years. My First Mister, distinguished actress Christine Lahti's feature directorial debut (she won an Oscar five years ago for her short film Lieberman in Love) starts off with similar hope, not to mention a titular nod to My Fair Lady, one of the most beloved cross-generational movies of the 1960s, but suffers from a touch too much structure and a script (by Jill Franklyn, co-writer of the "Yada Yada" episode of Seinfeld) that pedals a tad too hard on sentimentality. The direction is determined, straight forward and occasionally fanciful, but not especially ambitious or daring. On its surface, Mister's life-affirming story bears a strikingly similarity to the forthcoming Life as a House, as it deals with the fatal struggle between an lonesome adult and a nihilistic child. Both are tear-jerking weepers (House demanding a few more hankies), defying you to hold back the tears.

The most surprising revelation of the film is a breakthrough performance by Leelee Sobieski. Her china-doll features and blonde locks are matted down behind a grim, goth appearance of dark clothing, purple-tinged black hair, metal piercings impregnating her face, and heavy black makeup clouding her eyes. Is this the same Leelee concurrently starring in Joy Ride and The Glass House? Well, yes, but here she's nearly unrecognizable on the surface. And just below her character's exterior lurks an aggravating case of low self-esteem and deathly obsession, so obvious from the black cat, graveyard visits, Anne Rice books, and bloody/skeletal images that haunt her household prison. Jennifer Anna Wilson is some teenagers' dream and every parent's nightmare.

"J" lives a lonesome, stultifying existence with her ditsy, Partridge-Family mom (Carol Kane) and her toupee-bedecked dullard stepfather (Michael McKean). Lacking other alternatives, she occasionally crushes lit cigarettes on her arms. Having just graduated high school, she's in need a job to escape the dreary home life that exacerbates her delicate position, but a haunting appearance and gruff bedside manner make her job hunting quest a predictable experience. Until she finds an unlikely kindred, lonesome spirit at Rutherfords, an upscale menswear store at the Century City mall. There, paunchy forty-nine-year-old sad sack Randall ("R") is encased in his own invisible armor of loveless, day-to-day drudgery. Albert Brooks offers his usual, droll wit in this role, dishing off sarcastic comments with a refined glee at the newly hired clerk. His young assistant battles back with barbs of her own, "happy is f*cking over-rated," and a newly-found dedicated work ethic that will push her out of the stockroom and into her boss's heart. A peculiar friendship is thus born and the two mismatched comrades in depression find solace flossing away the plaque-filled enamel covering their distraught souls. "J" cleans up her outer shell to a single nose pin (the "removal" sequence shown in excruciating closeup), while "R" starts reading Seventeen, volunteers to get a (small) tattoo, and lets the youngster help him break down his phobic defenses.

Ultimately, Randall's big secret is outed (I won't spill the beans) and Jennifer becomes preoccupied in doing the right thing, including finding redemption and reassurance in those that had tried to be close to her and some (including her pot-smoking, long-haired hippie father, played by John Goodman, and Mary Kay Place as a nurse with a heart of gold) who have not. The last third of the film is as manipulative as the screenplay demands it to be, although the humor and its often deadpan delivery helps to stem the flow of tears.

The heroic pairing of Brooks and Sobieski is a magical monument to Lahti's tender care in handling actors; the sappy excesses of the script dooms this indie effort from Paramount Classics to art house curiosity item.

Directed by:
Christine Lahti

Albert Brooks
Leelee Sobieski
Carol Kane
Michael McKean
John Goodman
Mary Kay Place
Desmond Harrington
Lisa Jane Persky

Written by:
Jill Franklyn

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian..




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