starring Albert Brooks, Leelee Sobieski, John Goodman, Michael McKean
screenplay by Jill Franklyn
directed by Christine Lahti
by Walter Chaw Something's fatally off about My First Mister, veteran character actor Christine Lahti's feature-length directorial debut. Awkward and atonal, it appears to be some strange cross between a reverse-gendered Harold and Maude and a mainstream Ghost World, and despite its desperation to appear so, it's neither as intelligent nor edgy as either. Jill Franklyn's screenplay (her first produced) just doesn't work. It's hollow to the ear and disagreeable to the taste, only ringing true occasionally through the Herculean intervention of Albert Brooks, here in his most restrained and affecting performance since Broadcast News. That noise you hear when Leelee Sobieski's weary (and wearying) voiceover confides, "My clothes are not all black. Some of them are blue. Sometimes I wear them together so I look like a bruise," is an audience's worth of eyeballs rolling skyward. The problems Franklyn's script presents to the rest of the cast, however, particularly the Helen Hunt-ishly smug (and similarly limited) Sobieski and Carol Kane as another gnomish manic eccentric, are insurmountable. They're crushed beneath the weight of convenience, contrivance, Lahti's unfortunate impulse towards the cutesy, and a score that is as insulting and invasive as any to be found in a Chris Columbus film or from the recently-flaccid baton of the once-great John Williams.
Jennifer (Sobieski) is a goth teen who sports multiple piercings and prefers to be called "J." We surmise from her miserable Winona Ryder-in-Beetlejuice wardrobe that she has a copy of The Bell Jar by her bed--as does Randall (Brooks), the quiet and portly owner of a men's clothier, in the film's best moment. J, responding to his shot in the dark with, "Yeah, why?" has an unawareness of her own status of cliché that is matched by the film's unawareness of its status as a cliché, though it does serve to simultaneously evoke J's tediousness and her naiveté. It is a moment of eloquence that surpasses any other that My First Mister offers up, not a harbinger any kind of potential in the tired conceit at the core of My First Mister but rather a reminder of better films (like the aforementioned Ghost World) that are smart enough to depend on subtlety. (As opposed to insipid convention, lazy characterization, and a handful of embarrassing, CGI-enhanced hallucinations wearisome even without "Ally McBeal.")
For no conceivable reason except the sake of plot advancement, Randall hires J to work in the stockroom of his shop after J invites him to "fuck off, beer belly." Just as inexplicably, Randall does not fire J when she fails to honour even the simplest of bans ("Stay in the back") before creating an elaborate S&M diorama in the store's front window with mannequins. Inspired by jealousy as she spies Randall chatting with Patty (Mary Kay Place) during lunch one day, J's risqué sculpture is surprising for a great many reasons. First because J's crush is an unearned bombshell and clearly the tortured artifice upon which the second half of the film will ride, and second because the elaborate painting and arranging of the mannequins requires the other employees of Randall's store to turn a blind eye to the meticulous, malicious undertaking. No matter, for soon after the film abandons Randall's store completely to more effectively segue from an unsuccessful comedy into an equally unsuccessful tearjerker.
The film is inelegantly like a Thirties screwball in its mismatched and verbally combative leading couple and its rising and falling action; unlike that slapstick genre, My First Mister often lacks even a cursory attempt to string its largely unrelated vignettes one to the next. A high-school subplot is hastily abandoned for a family dysfunction opus, which is hastily abandoned for an unlikely friendship scheme, which is hastily abandoned for a bizarre deathbed Terms of Endearment bit of maudlin malarkey. Not even a very fine performance by an unusually reserved Brooks can disguise the uninspired nature of his co-stars' performances, or My First Mister's uncomfortable debt to the brand of self-pitying mawkishness made infamous by television movies of the week. Originally published: October 22, 2001.