In the end, emotions get in the way

Review: Two people find each other and try to deal with their suppressed feelings. But the conclusion gets overly sentimental.

October 19, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

My First Mister does such a nice job of developing a relationship between two mismatched characters, and features such fine performances from its leads, it's a real shame the film gets mushy at the end. The result is an all too conventional ending on a film that should have been much better.

Leelee Sobieski, in her most complex screen role, is Jennifer, a Goth-inspired teen who rails against whatever's handy: parents, school, the world. She even hates her name, preferring the much cooler sobriquet J. A talented wordsmith, she refuses to be happy about even that.

"I don't write poems," she says in a voice-over, "I write eulogies."

The only thing she enjoys is causing herself pain, mentally and physically; safety pins and other sharp objects hang from her face.

In short, J is a mess, searching for a reason to stop being one. She doesn't find it at school, where she's surrounded by kids she sees as losers. She doesn't find it at home, where her stepfather (Michael McKean) couldn't care less, and her mom (Carol Kane, playing her usual daft self) thinks a little pep talk is all J needs.

But eventually, she finds it in the unlikeliest of places: a suburban shopping mall. Trying to land a job, she walks into a clothing store whose manager, Randall (Albert Brooks) sees something in her he likes. Take the hardware off your face, he tells her, and you can work here.

Responding unexpectedly well to this bit of adult direction - this may be the first time a grown-up has told her to do something, rather than simply suggested it - J gets with the program. She doesn't drop the attitude entirely, but she lets down her guard enough to start fitting in with the rest of the world.

She also develops a complex relationship with Randall, whom she suspects may be as messed-up as she is. There's nothing sexual about their interaction (although she fantasizes a bit), but plenty that's emotional. The two open each other up, fleshing out each other's lives.

Director Christine Lahti and screenwriter Jill Franklyn deserve credit for choosing the path less taken. By avoiding the sensational (and tabloidy) tendency to maneuver these two souls into bed, they create a believable relationship that's wondrous both for its honesty and its complexity.

Sobieski and Brooks contribute stellar work. She's not afraid to make J unpleasant, but continually hints at the repressed soul cowering underneath her black facade, while he's perfect as a man whose easy demeanor and facile wit hide a soul with its own complications.

Still, the plot takes too many leaps. Until J blurts out that Randall is just as repressed as she is, the audience hasn't seen any evidence suggesting he has his own issues. J's mom is drawn too broadly, and her dad, played by John Goodman in hippie regalia, isn't any better. And one last major character, who isn't even introduced until the film is three-quarters over, serves no purpose beyond upping the tear factor.

In fact, the whole ending is a mess, as one character is given a fatal disease and the dominoes fall into place for one of those three-hankie endings Hollywood loves. My First Mister is so filled with honest emotion, it should never have resorted to the cheap kind.

My First Mister

Starring Albert Brooks, Leelee Sobieski

Directed by Christine Lahti

Rated R (Adult language, sex)

Released by Paramount Classics

Running time 109 minutes

Sun score * * 1/2

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