The Good Mother

March 12, 2013

goodmotherThe Good Mother, a film adapted from the novel by Sue Miller, takes its time about springing its main plot point. First we learn some history about the protagonist, Anna (Diane Keaton), recently divorced, who lives in Boston with her young daughter.

Early in the film, she meets a sculptor (Liam Neeson) with whom she has a torrid, and very satisfying, affair. The movie is a good 50 minutes old before the revelation that changes everything, a revelation that centers on child molestation, or at least the appearance of impropriety.

The movie delves into Anna’s family history, recounting her hero worship of her rebellious aunt, and the still-formidable presence of her wealthy grandparents (Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright).

Anna was supposed to be the pianist in the family, but she never quite had the passion for it, a lingering failure. And the film sketches Anna’s current confusions, her will to independence that wars with her reliance on the grandparents for money, and her meaningless job. The crucial thing she has is her child, and raising her daughter is the source of her passion; it’s the one thing in her life she does well.

All of this is sensitively directed by Leonard Nimoy, who continues to move farther away from the pointed ears of Mr. Spock. Nimoy’s good with actors and he stages individual scenes well, such as the first lovemaking between Keaton and Neeson, which takes place in an artist’s loft full of weird sculptures, casting strange shadows.

On some level, I’m not quite sure what the movie is about, or thinks it’s about. For instance, Keaton’s character describes herself as having “always been frigid,” until she meets the romantic sculptor, with whom she has great sex. Just when she reaches this point, she gets slapped down, and loses the most important thing in her life. The film does not denounce or endorse this theme and you wonder to what extent it is intended.

A lot of what the movie is about, however, seems to be in Diane Keaton’s performance, and I think that is where it succeeds most. Keaton is often accused of mannerism and ditheriness, and she is sometimes guilty. In The Good Mother, she’s still every inch Keaton; Nimoy has given her free rein. So her performance is full of her customary half-sentences, dotty gesticulations, and quicksilver changes of facial expression.

But it seems to be that these Keatonisms are to the point, for this character. She is supposed to be a woman very much in the process of finding herself, and under those circumstances, the performance is all too apt, and frequently poignant.

First published in the Herald, November 1988

One of those How Did This Get Made? movies, made during Nimoy’s unexpected success as a director. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone refer to this film.



February 18, 2011

I think most of us agree that the Rolling Stones’ classic “Satisfaction” has been waiting for the definitive interpreter, the inspired reader, the all-new rendition. Who else to give this new reading of the song but …Justine Bateman, of course.

Just kidding. Mick Jagger’s immortal intonation is quite safe from this feeble imitation. But as another song puts it, the girl can’t help it. Bateman, the star of “Family Ties,” wanted to make a movie, and this one happens to be about a girl group, so she sings, all right? The fact that she really has no singing voice did not stop this trouper, just as it has not stopped many actors in the past.

The plot of Satisfaction hangs on the threadiest of threads. It’s a summer movie about a gang of girls, just graduating from high school, who take a summer gig at a beachside bar before they must scatter for college.

Believe it or not, in the course of the summer they all learn a lot about love and life. (Though they never learn why a bunch of 17-year-olds can perform in a bar.) Bateman falls in heavy like with the bar’s owner, a former rock star (Liam Neeson, who had the title role in Suspect).

He’s now burned out, but obviously available for rekindling, and you can bet that before the film is over he’ll write a song under the fresh inspiration of his new muse. The song selection overall is a bit unlikely; the girls seem to know everything from “Iko Iko” to Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance.”

Screenwriter Charles Purpura and director Joan Freeman work mainly in shorthand, which may be the best way. Justine Bateman is pretty and toothy and can’t be faulted for this thing, particularly since it takes a certain grand kind of guts to perform a cappella with a voice like hers. And it could have been worse: At least they didn’t ask her to sing “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman” or “Dock of the Bay.”

First published in the Herald, February 19, 1988

At the time, honestly, it seemed as though Justine Bateman could possibly turn into some sort of movie star—and if not her, then bandmate Trini Alvarado, also an appealing performer, had a shot to break out. And oh yes, there was Julia Roberts in there too. She and Neeson came out of this pretty well.

Next of Kin

December 9, 2010

Kinfolk: Bill Paxton, Patrick Swayze, Liam Neeson

Patrick Swayze has been riding the unexpected success of Dirty Dancing for two years now, which is more than can be said for the studio that produced the film (Vestron Pictures went belly-up some months ago). A follow-up, Road House, was a modern Western that horrified critics and didn’t charm Swayze’s female fans; it faded quietly from screens earlier this summer. (I still count it as one of the year’s guiltier pleasures.)

The new one, Next of Kin, is another action movie, toned down a bit, but unlikely to provide another hit. Swayze puts on an accent for this outing: He’s a good ol’ boy from Kentucky, transplanted to Chicago and working as a cop. When his little brother is killed, apparently by members of the Mafia, Swayze has to mollify his enraged kinfolk and settle the score with the mob.

This isn’t easy, for as Swayze learns when his visits home, all of his relatives are sitting around holding their Bibles, pronouncing in low tones that passage about an eye for an eye. In particular, he has to stop his brother (Irish actor Liam Neeson, who really had to put on an accent) from going to Chicago with a sawed-off shotgun and laying waste to people.

Which, in fact, is what his brother does. There is a side plot amongst the bad guys, in which the trigger man (Adam Baldwin) is setting up the son (Ben Stiller) of the Mafia don. These threads come together in a big shoot-out, featuring not only guns but also bows and arrows, in a Windy City cemetery.

Director John Irvin seems frustrated about how to make the material work. He labors over some lighthearted, loving moments between Swayze and his wife (Helen Hunt), but these fall flat. (She is a concert violinist, although Swayze persists in calling the instrument a fiddle.) Then there’s some peculiar low comedy surrounding a couple of the mob henchmen, which suggests that a life of crime is often a barrel of laughs.

Otherwise, characters say the usual things: “When you set up my brother, you forgot to kill me.” Things like that. Swayze delivers these lines with his customary denseness; he always seems to be a step behind everybody else in the movie. Perhaps that’s the secret of his appeal.

Originally published in the Herald on October 27, 1989. 

Next of Kin is one of those 80s pictures that vanished from sight and mind very quickly. And yet: Neeson, Helen Hunt, and Ben Stiller as a mob boss’s son? I have no memory of that whatsoever. Maybe I’m a little hard on Swayze here; he had a real niceness on screen; the curious thing was how he floundered to find fitting vehicles after hitting the Dirty Dancing gusher. Still, there’s Point Break and the deranged Road House and To Wong Foo—the latter a very precise comic performance.