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January 20, 2001 2:00 AM
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PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: My First Movie, Lahti's "First Mister" Misfires

PARK CITY 2001 REVIEW: My First Movie, Lahti's "First Mister" Misfires

Patrick Z. McGavin



(indieWIRE/01.20.01) --As an actor, Christine Lahti is a miracle. In her greatest performances, found in Bill Forsythe's "Housekeeping" and Jonathan Demme's original cut of "Swing Shift," there is something evanescent about her, a steely smarts, emotional sympathy and formidable intelligence. It is among the many perplexing qualities of "My First Mister," Lahti's feature debut, that the subtlety, humanity and rigor so clearly present in her performances should elude her so forcefully as a filmmaker.


The opening night Sundance film does not exactly qualify as a disaster, though aside from Albert Brooks' beautifully restrained, complex performance, the film's wildly varied tone, poorly shaded characterizations and awkward, emotionally manipulative late section defeats the potentially risky material. The movie has bursts of excitement, though nothing is ever truly sustained and fully thought through. Most disappointing, Lahti relies on broad comedy and crude symmetry to deflect the more serious and problematic implications of the movie's interesting premise: the exact nature of the relationship between a sullen, withdrawn 17-year-old girl and the repressed, lonely 49-year-old man she works for.


I kept wishing this were a French movie, because then the film would have the courage to examine the repercussions of such a relationship, and this movie never explores to any great satisfaction the critical underpinning or explication of sexual and romantic longing. Working from a script by Jill Franklyn, Lahti never finds a confident sure tone.


The early passages establish the consciousness of the gothic, death-preoccupied Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski), a smart, angry teenager struggling to find some equilibrium between her promising abilities as a writer and her inchoate grief and anxiety -- the death of her grandmother, the break up of her parents' marriage, and her disgust at the intensely restrictive experiences of her life.


Working in widescreen with cinematographer Jeffrey Jur, Lahti favors a succession of rectangular frames that yield an elongated horizontal line and shallow depth of field. The movie feels oppressive and claustrophobic from the start. Visually, much of the movie plays like the binoculars J (Jennifer's preferred name) is constantly peering through, exaggerating and distorting the image. J's depressed, enclosed life is curiously brightened by her odd attachment to Randall, or R (the sublime Brooks), the manager of an upscale Century City clothing store where J improbably finds work. He convinces her to shed her multiple body piercings and adapt a less strident, confrontational manner. She is drawn to his sensitivity, empathy, and especially, his humor. He is impressed with her observation and natural ease. These middle passages are by far the strongest in the film, primarily because these are the only two emotionally recognizable characters in the film. The others (J's eccentric "family," mother Carol Kane, father John Goodman, stepfather Michael McKean) are too coarsely rendered and badly overplayed to engender any depth of feeling or empathy.


Sobieski has beautiful, crystalline features, though she needs a director who won't protect her. Her best work by far was the sexual provocateur in Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" and the young woman trying to come to terms with her sexuality in James Ivory's "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." She has wonderful instincts, and a body that simultaneously conveys disruption and anxiousness.


Brooks is one of the most formally daring, structurally interesting filmmakers in commercial cinema. He works best under his own hand. There's a power and resourceful working both in front of and behind the camera. His own movies ("Lost in America," "Defending Your Life," "Mother") employ long takes and rigorously composed framing as means of observation, movement and timing. His character in "My First Mister" is a comic variation of a Raymond Carver figure: a defeated man, emotionally and physically, pricked by disappointment and rejection, who has resigned himself to a life of small, unexamined events. The emotional fluctuation of the scenes involving their deepening friendship, the untangling of feelings and expressions, has a spontaneity and freshness the balance of the movie never quite achieves.


This is a movie that never wants to become too uncomfortable, too revealing in its emotional possibility, because the very plausibility of such an attraction poses a more profound and complicated series of questions that the movie (or filmmakers) are not prepared to acknowledge. By refusing to ever answer or cope with the question of sexual attraction between the two, "My First Mister" is the worst kind of tease. One particularly frustrating sequence illustrates the point. After J has convinced Randall to loosen up, even submitting himself to having a tattoo, R sits in a chair in the parlor where he is suddenly rhapsodized by the understated sensuality of J. But Lahti destroys the possibility by intensifying the comic interruption of the surreal, highly stylized tattoo artist, linking it with other sequences of comic hallucination rather than isolating it as a primal, emerging expression of sexual desire. In fact J is the aggressor as the ensuing scene unfolding in R's bedroom makes explicit. At the moment the issue is finally broached, the film veers awkwardly and disastrously into a series of third act revelations that is not only crudely realized, but actually becomes insulting. In the end, "My First Mister" required Lahti to be as bold and unpredictable as a director as she has been as an actor.


[Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and film critic. His articles, essays and reviews have appeared in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Tribune, Filmmaker Magazine and City Talk.]

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