By Karina Longworth
When a filmmaker casts his own parents as parents in a film, which he shoots in his childhood home, about an adult and his relationship to his parents upon returning to his childhood home, you’d expect (or maybe fear) that the result would be meta-personal to the point of solipsism. But what’s really surprising about Azazel Jacob’s Momma’s Man, which stars his experimental filmmaker father Ken Jacobs and mother Flo Jacobs and was shot in the Manhattan loft in which the family has lived for decades, is that it feels completely universal. The story of a 30-something husband and father of a newborn who extends a stay at his parents’ ramshackle New York apartment indefinitely, it’s an incredible portrait of the final phase of coming of age, transitioning from being parented to parenting.
First telling both his parents and his wife back home that the airline is giving him the runaround about rescheduling a canceled return flight, then tailoring his excuses for each discreet party as he needs to buy time in increments, Mikey (Matt Boren) takes advantage of his parents’ bemused hospitality to carve out a winter vacation. He spends his days visiting with old friends (including a recent parolee with unexpected musical passions) and trying to make new ones, his nights combing through boxes of old notebooks, love letters and comic books. In a lofted bed just feet from his sleeping parents, Mikey pulls out a guitar and plays a love song he apparently wrote in high school. Overhearing the lyrics, “Fuck fuck fuck you/I hope you die too,” his parents exchange a worried glance; maybe there’s more to this visit than they’ve been led to believe.
The real-life Jacobs family loft is all narrow passages, lofted overlooks and sharp corners, with convex mirrors violating depth perception and walls more often than not formed by stacks of stuff. It’s as far away from any traditional idea of a childhood home as you can get, but it’s the perfectly surreal environment for the younger Jacobs to visually portray the intertwined comfort and claustrophobia of returning after a decade and a half to the parental embrace. Mikey’s in a prickly state of limbo, with the sense of peace that comes from rejecting responsibility and lapsing into his former self progressively undermined by his natural instinct for adult autonomy. At one point, Mikey listens to and promptly deletes an answering machine message that destroys the alibi he’s given his parents for staying in New York. His body has just de-tensed with the sense of a potential crisis averted, when he looks up and sees his dad has been a few feet away, silently watching for who knows how long. Later, Mikey escapes to the tiny bathroom for some alone time, but can’t escape his mother’s call from the other side of the door, ever fishing for an opportunity to tend to her son’s needs.
And yet, when Mikey actually tries to leave the house, he gets no further than the top of the staircase, stuck with his foot actually hovering above the next step. This is a contentious scene, even amongst the film’s biggest fans, and it’s one of a handful of shots and set pieces that verge on the overtly literal. But I think it might be dangerous to take a scene like this at face value and leave it at that. This is, after all, a film in part about paralyzing confusion, and there’s so much going on in the margins of every action that even when Jacobs appears to be spelling something out, there are also several things left unsaid.
There’s a lot of comedy in Momma’s Man––Ken Jacobs, so deadpan he’s almost sinister, is particularly fun to watch––but as it slinks towards a sweet/sad climax between mother and son, it’s devastatingly melancholy. Jacob’s smartest trick is allow us to laugh at his characters without ever turning them into jokes. They take themselves extremely seriously, and that’s good for a laugh, but ultimately Jacobs seems to deeply empathize with every person on screen. He’s thus able to hook the audience with the deconstructed-sitcom premise, primes them with recognizable nostalgia, and then goes in for the kill, plumbing the mother/son relationship until grown men are reduced to tears. Momma’s Man is, essentially, a chick flick for cool, bridging-30 boys.