It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The mother in Albert Brooks' "Mother" knows how to push the secret buttons to drive her son up the wall. All it takes is a slight intonation, a little pause, a wicked word choice no outsider would notice. And she's so sweet while making her subtle criticisms; why, you'd almost think she didn't know what she was doing.
"Mother" opens with John Henderson (Brooks) in despair because his second marriage has ended in divorce. In the lawyer's office, his ex-wife holds herself apart from him, like the survivor of a long and exquisitely unpleasant experience. "She brought a lot of great furniture to the marriage," Henderson reflects, returning to a house now furnished with one chair, which he spends the afternoon rearranging. Then he telephones his mother, tells her that his problems with women all started with her, and says that he wants to move back home and get it right this time.
Beatrice Henderson (Debbie Reynolds) is not pleased. She's paid her dues, raised her children and embraced the solitude of widowhood. She doesn't really seem to be focusing on his anguish; she constantly interrupts his emergency telephone call with the call-waiting button, although she doesn't know how it works. We see the nature of the difficulty: A mother who insists on her right to do things wrong is a torture to a perfectionist son.
Brooks is working with materials that look like the stuff of a sitcom; there is an "Odd Couple" spinoff here, waiting to happen. But Brooks, who co-wrote (with Monica Johnson) and directed as well as stars, is much too smart to settle for the obvious gags and payoffs. All of his films depend on closely observed behavior and language, on the ways language can refuse to let us communicate, no matter how obsessively we try to nail things down. In his scenes with Reynolds, they are told quietly, conversationally; they're not pounding out punch lines, and that's why the dialogue is so funny.