[Screen It]

(2001) (Leelee Sobieski, Albert Brooks) (R)

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Drama: A cynical teenage rebel and a lonely middle-aged man forge an unlikely friendship and learn something about each other and themselves when he hires her to work in his clothing store.
Jennifer (LEELEE SOBIESKI) is a 17-year-old girl who's just graduated from high school and is obsessed with death and the dark side of life. Still living at home with her excessively attentive mother, Sylvie (CAROL KANE), and stepfather, Bob (MICHAEL McKEAN), Jennifer spends most of her time being as different from the norm as possible, what with her Goth/punk look, multiple piercings, repeated visits to the cemetery and frequent writing of her own eulogy.

Not even remotely close to her long-estranged, hippie father, Ben (JOHN GOODMAN), Jennifer is lonely yet cynical, and finds her looks drawing stares from everyone, including Randall (ALBERT BROOKS), a 49-year-old, conservative manager of an upscale mall clothing store.

Jennifer has arrived there looking for a job so that she can move out of her mom's home, and despite Randall's initial reluctance, he decides to give her a break and hires her to work in the stockroom. The two eventually form an unlikely friendship, with each learning things about each other and their respective generations, as well as themselves.

Yet, when Randall suddenly falls ill, Jennifer finds herself on another mission. As nurse Patty (MARY KAY PLACE) cares for Randall, Jennifer searches for his long lost son, Randy (DESMOND HARRINGTON), hoping to find and then persuade him to meet his father.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although kids interact with their parents and grandparents, it's not unusual for the various generations to misunderstand the various facets of the other. Perhaps that's because such family members are too close and/or familiar with each other to take the time or effort to understand or learn about the other as much as they should.

Accordingly, sometimes it takes a total stranger to open one's eyes about others and their generational idiosyncrasies, and thus about themselves as well. Or at least that's the way it works in the movies. Harold and Maude learned about such matters in the 1972 comedy titled after their names, while Enid and Seymour did the same in the recently released "Ghost World."

Now it's Jennifer and Randall's turn in "My First Mister," the feature film debut of actress turned director Christine Lahti. All such movies usually involve the youngster and someone old enough to be their parent or grandparent coming off as unlikely friends who initially aren't sure what to make of the other. They eventually form a bond and then explore the other's world and generational ideologies, and use that and the friendship to grow as a person.

If you've seen one such movie, you've pretty much seen them all, at least from a general plot perspective, as they all follow the same basic course. What makes one different from the others, however, is in the way in which the participants are drawn and played, the emotional and psychological baggage they carry with them, and both how and what they learn about themselves.

Working from novice screenwriter Jill Franklyn's script, Lahti -- who helmed the Oscar winning short film, "Lieberman In Love" - creates some decent moments in such regards and elicits good performances from her two leads, Leelee Sobieski ("The Glass House," "Here on Earth") and Albert Brooks ("The Muse," "Defending Your Life").

While Sobieski's disillusioned and cynical teen character goes through the usual transformation with a few standard setbacks, and Brooks' stuffy middle-aged man obviously loosens up, the way in which the two play their characters, coupled with the filmmakers' efforts, result in some nice moments, both poignant and funny.

Taking a rather radical departure from the "normal" roles she usually plays, Sobieski gets down and dirty with this character, wallowing in her emotional and psychological distress. Although not quite as interesting or fun to watch as Thora Birch's character in "Ghost World" - or the similarly death-obsessed character played by Bud Cort in "Harold and Maude" - and perhaps relying a bit too much on voice over narration to impart important character information, Sobieski is quite good in the role.

As is Albert Brooks playing yet another in his long line of neurotic characters. While that may be growing old for some viewers with each subsequent portrayal (although he thankfully tones down the hang-ups and related ranting a bit), Brooks is good at playing that and delivers some of the film's best moments with his terrific, cynical and deadpan delivery.

Supporting performances are hit or miss, with John Goodman ("Coyote Ugly," "What Planet Are You From?") feeling at times like he's acting too much rather than simply being his hippie character, while Michael McKean ("Best in Show," "This Is Spinal Tap") is completely wasted. Carol Kane ("The Princess Bride," "Addams Family Values"), on the other hand, is appropriately smothering as the protagonist's mom who can't stop doting; Mary Kay Place ("Girl, Interrupted," "The Big Chill") is good as a compassionate nurse; and Desmond Harrington ("Riding in Cars With Boys," "Boiler Room") delivers a good take as a young man suddenly thrust into an odd situation.

The film does have some problems, however, with much of the fault seemingly lying with Lahti's inexperience helming the ship. Beyond the fact that one can feel the film's seams -- it occasionally feels like a carefully assembled project rather than a perfectly consistent piece - it's too long. In addition, a few moments and some late in the game developments feel contrived and put into play simply to place some additional emotional wallop into the proceedings.

The biggest fault, however, is in Lahti's decision to include some Ally McBeal type material where Sobieski's character sees various exaggerated or distorted images - such as Brooks' butt blowing up like a balloon or a teacher sporting vampire fangs while fiendishly laughing at her.

I understand that's all present to represent her warped view of things, and that once she changes and grows as a person such imagery pretty much slows down and then stops, all of which works thematically. It's just that such visions and special effects simply feel incongruous with the rest of the film's tone.

Nonetheless, the good material outweighs and outnumbers that which is bad or faulty. Lahti and company create some nice moments and touches, while the two leads deliver good performances, all combining in a resultant picture that might not be great, but for the most part works in what it's trying to achieve. "My First Mister" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 5, 2001 / Posted October 12, 2001

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