Considering that Azazel Jacobs, the director of “Momma’s Man,” is the offspring of American avant-garde filmmaker extraordinaire Ken Jacobs, one would be forgiven for expecting his film to be more experimental and abstract than the seemingly conventional narrative that plays out. Yet buried beneath the poignant clutter of this occasionally familiar stunted-youth-in-life-transition tale is a surprisingly complex, elegantly detailed meditation on creativity and artistic growth. While Ken Jacobs may work with found footage, purposefully elongating time and reassembling it into tapestries of pointed Americana, his son has constructed a personal fiction film using the detritus of his own life: the downtown Manhattan loft where he grew up, the gadgets and tchotchkes strewn about it like cherished memories, and his parents themselves.
A leisurely crawl back into a warm womb, set in a beautifully drab, wintry New York and laced with a subtle piano score, “Momma’s Man” casts Matt Boren as Mikey, recently married, the father of a new baby, in his early thirties. As the film begins, Mikey is returning home to his mom and dad (keeping it all in the family, they’re played by Jacobs’s real father and mother, Ken and Flo), ostensibly from the airport, claiming his flight was canceled due to plane malfunctions. Jacobs imparts an instant sense of calm as Mikey cozies up in his bedroom, which is more accurately a kitty corner (dotted with glow-in-the-dark stars) situated in the huge studio that is Ken and Flo’s apartment, made labyrinthine from the piles of discarded woodwork, paintings, books, sculptures, pianos, and windup toys that have created de facto walls. It’s the perfect evocation of the simultaneous vacation and prison of the childhood home, the comfort of the past; it must have been quite a maneuver for Jacobs to shoot here, with its presumably decades-old mess, but the authenticity this setting imparts cannot be faked.
As Boren interacts with Ken and Flo amidst the flotsam of Jacobs’s home life, their conversations often reflected and distorted in the convex mirror that peers over their “kitchen” table like an all-seeing eye, “Momma’s Man” makes the impression of a slightly twisted home movie; but where Jacobs could have exploited his parents for prime Lynchian eccentricity, instead he creates a gentle, humane tribute. The marked difference in acting styles between Boren and the elder Jacobses creates a fascinating tension; Ken and Flo’s awkward line delivery jars at first yet their “nonprofessionalism” ultimately grants the film its otherworldly wonder, with Ken staring at his son with a mix of fatherly benevolence and bewilderment, and Flo, effacingly enchanting with her hushed maternal monotone (it’s hardly a surprise that Azazel’s dream casting for the role is Shelley Duvall). They’re delightful, and not least because they would seemingly rather be anywhere than in front of the camera.
Yet as integral as Flo and Ken’s presences are, this is Azazel/Mikey’s story, and his extended stay with his parents, which he keeps fabricating outlandish excuses for, becomes alarming in its pathology. Refusing to go back home, or even to return his wife’s increasingly panicked (and finally sorrowful) phone calls, Mikey retreats into a blinkered fantasy world; he’s a mole burrowing deeper and deeper into the ground, denying life’s responsibilities, relying instead on the safety of parents whose workspace is his eternal playroom, a mother who always has breakfast waiting for him (an especially tender, hilarious cutaway shows an instructive note Flo has left for him in the morning: “Put the fruit in the cereal!”), and even the comforting juvenilia a childhood friend who’s caught in a freeze-frame of teen aggression (he watches old boxing videos over and over).
While Mikey’s job isn’t thoroughly defined, it’s clear that he’s not the intellectual, creative type that his parents are, yet he’s hardly an outcast. Like the character of Mikey, “Momma’s Man” builds a bridge between the material and the avant-garde worlds: Azazel/Mikey’s linear functionality on one hand, and Ken and Flo’s easily distracted ethereality on the other. Mikey eventually journeys back to the self, while behind the scenes Azazel is enacting his own artistic self-realization. “Momma’s Man” is certainly a wonderful example of his emergence.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]