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Review: Twisted 'Mister'

Leelee Sobieski turns up in her third film in a month.  Albert Brooks joins her in
Leelee Sobieski turns up in her third film in a month. Albert Brooks joins her in "First Mister."  

By Paul Tatara
CNN Reviewer

"My First Mister" is a well-meaning little film that's basically sunk by the constraints of Hollywood-defined "commercial" cinema.

Actress-turned-director Christine Lahti tries to inject dark emotion into a story about Jennifer (the currently ubiquitous Leelee Sobieski), a teen-age Goth rocker who unexpectedly makes a tender connection with Randall (Albert Brooks) her grumpy, middle-aged boss.

But Jill Franklin's gooey, implausible script is too ridiculous to support unexpected bouts of sincerity, and the darkness is seldom as profound as it should be, given the central protagonist's warped emotions.

Jennifer is a self-consciously morbid kid with an intense distaste for pretty much everything except tattoos, body piercings, and gloomy music. Her parents (Michael McKean and Carol Kane) are broadly caricatured victims of suburbia. Dad is a mouth-breather who misses even the easiest answers while watching "Jeopardy," and Mom is a full-fledged nut case.


Lahti allows Kane to go for broke, carrying on in a high-pitched voice about the body's need for brisket, and how she "understands" Jennifer's overwhelming sense of melancholy. She and her super-tacky household seem to have wandered over from a John Waters movie. Who could blame Jennifer for developing a bad attitude?

One day, after being fired from a retail outlet for passing gas in front of the customers (no, really), Jennifer wanders over to the Century City Mall to scare a few shoppers with her facial piercings and blue-streaked hair. There, she grows fascinated by a mustachioed, middle-age guy who's setting up mannequins in the window of an upscale men's store. That would be Randall.

Initially, Randall mocks Jennifer's bizarre fashion sense when she approaches him for a job. But he takes pity on her and tells her he'll let her work in the stockroom if she removes the "silverware" from her face. This thrills Jennifer to no end because she needs the work, and (very, very inexplicably) she's sort of attracted to dumpy old Randall.

This attraction is only the first of several unbelievable situations. For instance, Randall agrees to hang out with his new, vaguely amorous 17-year old employee at a death-rock coffeehouse called The Bourgeois Pig. Then, he lets Jennifer put together a window display. But she turns it into a bloody S&M fantasy when she sees him eating lunch with an appropriately middle-aged woman (Mary Kay Place.)

Instead of doing the sensible thing and firing her right then and there, Randall tells Jennifer that he really trusted her and now he doesn't. Nevertheless, he's still willing to let her come to the store every day and humiliate him for being a quiet, sensitive person.

At this point something unexpected happens: For about 30 minutes, the movie is pretty enjoyable. Sobieski is a solid young actress; Jennifer is certainly a more endurable character when she starts to soften a bit. And Brooks, although most people probably don't think about it, is capable of giving a moving, comic performance. (Remember how good he was in "Broadcast News?") He's great at conveying inert frustration.

Randall doesn't reveal much about himself for quite a while, and his warming-up process is rather touching. Some of the scenes are terrible clunkers -- especially one in which Jennifer convinces Randall to get a tattoo -- but the chemistry between the actors is pleasant enough.

Then the whole thing collapses in a heap of cheap sentiment. Without revealing too much, there's a twist that wouldn't look out of place in a 1930s Joan Crawford picture, except that Albert Brooks is standing in for Crawford. A couple of good performers give it the college try, but you have to forgive too much to fully enjoy "My First Mister."

If you're a big Brooks fan, you should rent it when it hits video, and fast-forward when you feel yourself starting to cringe. But you'd be wise to turn it off completely instead of enduring the last act.

Sorry to make you work so hard. You don't get an ill-defined "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" around here.

Lahti won a 1995 directing Oscar for Best Short Film, and it shows -- "My First Mister" works mostly in quick spurts. There's some profanity, and talk of sex and death. Sobieski also jabs at her arm with a safety pin, possibly because she's sick of seeing herself in so many movies (three in the past month, if you've lost track). Insert your own "she looks like Helen Hunt" joke.



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