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NOVEMBER 14, 2008

There's No Place

Like This Home

In Momma's Man, a confused son regresses into his parents's fantastic array of artifacts.

By Mark Jenkins

Also this week, an interview with Slumdog Millionaire director DANNY BOYLE.

IN THIS WEEK'S BIG-BUDGET HOLLYWOOD DISAPPOINTMENT, mystifyingly titled Quantum of Solace, James Bond quick-cuts his way from Italy to Haiti to Austria to Bolivia, without really going anywhere at all. There's a far more satisfying sense of place in Momma's Man, a minimalist family anti-drama set mostly in a single location: a lower-Manhattan loft that's so extravagantly cluttered it looks more like a storeroom than an apartment.

The space is even more singular than it looks, because it's actually where writer-director Azazel Jacobs grew up. He knows every cranny, as well as he knows his supporting cast: filmmaker Ken Jacobs and artist Flo Jacobs, aka mom and dad. They play the bemused parents of an inscrutable young man with the little-boy name of Mikey (Matt Boren). Back in New York on a business trip, Mikey spends the night in his old bedroom — a loft space that isn't exactly a room — and decides to stay. Even though he has a job, a baby, and a wife, Laura (Dana Varon), back in California.

What happens to Mikey could be called a nervous breakdown. Yet the pudgy young man doesn't seem to be fleeing his current life so much as falling back in love with his old one. For reasons Mikey can't or won't explain — he's too busy dodging his parents, wife, and boss to articulate what's happening to him — he's captivated by his old comic books, his battered guitar, his Garbage Pail Kids card collection, and some tattered pieces of paper that include an angry letter from a high-school girlfriend and the lyrics to a suitably adolescent punk song. Mikey tries on a child-size lightning-bolt cape, not as if he expects it to transform him into a superhero, but perhaps imagining that it might make him a kid again. When Mikey does leave the apartment, it's usually to visit old pals with whom he no longer has anything in common. One attempt to make new friends fails: After buying beer for some teenagers, Mikey hovers nearby, hoping in vain that they'll invite him to join them.

The story is told in action-painting brushstrokes. Mikey's initial refusal to leave New York is conveyed simply by his apparent failure to get off the subway at Howard Beach, the station closest to JFK Airport. Did he actually make it to the ticket counter, where he was told that the flight was overbooked? That's what Mikey tells Laura and his parents, but his inability to make a new reservation suggests that the airline is not at fault.

The family dynamic is lovingly, convincingly evoked. Mom will do anything to make Mikey whole again, but has no idea what is required; while her son weeps in the bathroom, she offers him tea, or coffee, or maybe cereal. Dad is quietly disapproving, seemingly expecting the problem to fix itself, although he does ask Mikey to pipe down when he sings his rediscovered lyrics — "Fuck fuck fuck you/I hope you die too" — late one night. Such moments frame Mikey's funk in wry details: Dad casually reads American Fascists, the perhaps-suicidal Mikey and his parents lie in bed together watching Chaplin's murderous Monsieur Verdoux; back in California, Stranger Than Paradise's Richard Edson tries to put the moves on Laura. Also, this film features the funniest-ever on-screen use of an Indigo Girls song.

Just as important, however, is the use of physical space. The loft has enough angles, thoroughfares, and intersections for a small city, and Mikey and his folks are regularly thrown into odd juxtapositions. Jacobs cannily shoots through shelves, doorways, and other gaps in the jumble, tightly framing shots to suggest both the trio's intimacy and Mikey's isolation. Momma's Man recalls submarine flicks like Das Boot, but also such explorations of urban texture as Wings of Desire and Lost in Translation. Call it an apartment symphony. (2008, 98 min; at the Avalon Theater)