ARTS

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October 5, 2001

Albert Brooks makes the leap from comedy to death-obsessed indies

Is a romantic relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a 49-year-old man fundamentally wrong? Can social relationships be defined by sexual acts? Can anyone who has seen American Beauty remotely blame Kevin Spacey's character for wanting to be all over Mena Suvari? Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita pondered and engaged questions of a very similar nature. In Lolita Humbert Humbert enters into a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old girl reminiscent of his lost love, and the readers are left to judge him. My First Mister starts out headed for this level of depth and intensity but then, near the halfway point, the film gives up and settles for hackneyed Hollywood gloss.

My First Mister opens with a strong shout out to Gothic subculture with the appearance and room décor of Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski). Sobieski looks the part and should be on the latest cover of Gothic Beauty Magazine (view the magazine at www.gothicbeauty.com). Her exclusive interview could run alongside the hard-hitting articles of the most recent issue which include “The Canadian Invasion: Influencing Gothic Style" and “Gothic Swimwear: Conceal or Reveal?" Jennifer is a troubled young goth, alienated from her peers, her family, and good music. She divides her time equally between looking at the world through a backwards pair of binoculars and putting chunks of shrapnel in her face. Not surprisingly, she suffers from depression and a fascination with death, particularly her own. Having just finished high school, Jennifer decides to seek a job as a means of moving out of her parents' house and into an apartment. After traumatizing rejections from various Ambercrombie and Fitch outlets, Jennifer stumbles upon the 49-year-old Randall (Albert Brooks) who commands an impressive array of collar shirts in a formal clothing store. After cleaning up her appearance a little, Randall hires Jennifer to work in the stock room and their intricate relationship has its beginning.

The two quickly become odd friends and the movie has many genuinely funny scenes that play out their extreme differences. Jennifer, who has never dated, becomes more and more romantically interested in Randall. She even has a few Ally McBeal-like sexual fantasies that put a very positive spin on Randall's weight and attractiveness. Randall reciprocates with ogling of his own, but he has more difficulty coming to terms with being attracted to a woman easily young enough to be his daughter. It is about at this point in a very similar movie, Ghost World, where the sexual buildup reaches its peak and Thora Birch (the teenager) sleeps with Steve Buscemi (the not very attractive old guy). In American Beauty, a comparable sexual climax leads to an intimate scene where Kevin Spacey chooses the opposite route and declines sex with Mena Suvari. It is at this vital moment in the story that My First Mister loses its direction. The movie opts to drop the sexual nature of the relationship altogether, add two completely undeveloped characters to link to Sobieski and Brooks, and then end the film with trite sappiness. The conclusion is a far too simple a method of wrapping up a script that rests on the foundation of an awkward, quasi-sexual relationship between a 17-year-old girl and a 49-year-old man. To add insult to injury, the second half ditches the gothic undertones that made the paradoxes and odd relationships in the first half possible.

Regardless of the merits or shortcomings of the second half of the film, the first hour has plenty of movie magic. Christine Lahti does a wonderful job of technically capturing the odd ways in which the dejected Jennifer perceives the world around her. Some of the scenes are slowed down or blurred where appropriate and the shots of Jennifer desperately searching for a job in the mall are also very memorable. She looks so forlorn and alone sitting on the bench or riding down the escalator, like a skeletal tree in the middle of a grassy field. The stunning directorial touches alone make the film worth seeing, even if you only stay for the first half. Or you could just go see Ghost World for an example of a movie that is able to sustain its endearingly bizarre pitch for the full running time.