Looking back, My First Mister started to fall apart when John Goodman was first introduced as a pot-smoking, long-haired hippie remnant from The Big Lebowski. After that a terminal illness surfaces, then a character goes on a road trip, where the seeds of love are planted.
Somewhere between the first and second event I sighed in frustration. Another perfectly good movie gets ruined because of an extended trip into Clicheville. For a good fifty minutes or so, My First Mister rarely makes a mistake in detailing the friendship between a middle-aged, repressed clothing store manager Randall (Albert Brooks) and his 17-year-old Goth employee, Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski).
Out of high school and desperate for a job, Jennifer applies at Randall's mall store. When they first meet, harsh words are exchanged, but Randall soon takes a shine to the kid. The feeling is mutual for Jennifer, who is thrilled at being treated as a person, and not as a science experiment. They become friends, but also each other's teacher. She takes him to get a tattoo (she has several). He helps her get an apartment and a new wardrobe.
My First Mister excels in the first half because of the two leads. Brooks has always had a humorous and self-deprecating style that makes him an asset, but here he's even better because Brooks plays a character that would use that type of personality shield. He's not married to Andie MacDowell or a successful network news correspondent. His Randall is a control freak who seeks comfort in magazines.
As for Sobieski, who I've always liked, she does another fine job. This time it's with a shaky character -- the troubled Goth chick. Along with screenwriter Jill Franklyn, Sobieski finds her character's human touch and runs with it. She's a teenage kid who's screwed up, and Sobieski excels in being both mature and childish (Eyes Wide Shut ring a bell?). Her cajoling a customer into buying a suit is spot on, as is her indifferent treatment of her mom and stepfather (Carol Kane and Michael McKean, who's perennially underrated and almost as perennially underused).
Christine Lahti, a fine actress making her full-length directing debut, creates palpable tension between Jennifer and Randall. They might be friends, but there's something between them. While he gets tattooed, Randall gets caught up in Jennifer's dancing, and the moment frightens him. Jennifer tries on Randall's clothes, and when they talk while she wears his bathrobe, a sexy, frightening connection looms.
But where, oh where, did Lahti and Franklyn cook up the rest of the movie, which is like a bad combination of Terms of Endearment and Easy Rider? Not only are the movie's last 30 minutes distracting and predictable, but by cranking up the drama factor, the filmmakers completely show their lack of confidence in the main characters. The whole movie became worthless and hollow to me after that.
And what the hell is Goodman, as Jennifer's dad, doing here? His presence in the movie is the proverbial turd in the punch bowl. There's no explanation as to how his character and Kane's got together, or how he gets invited to a dinner of Brooks' friends at the film's end. And he's such an aging hippie stereotype, he looks like a member of a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band.
Despite the sloppy final act, My First Mister is worth seeing for Brooks and Sobieski's performances. Lahti shows a lot of promise in directing her first feature film. I'm looking forward to her next project, if she keeps the characters in one place and away from hospital rooms.