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Mother, Couch

From the moment Dave (Ewan McGregor) frantically walks across a deserted parking lot, “Mother, Couch” feels empty. Dressed in a black suit, Dave walks toward a furniture store filled with vintage, handcrafted pieces. At the front desk is the bubbly Bella (Taylor Russell), whose father Marcus and Uncle Marco (both played by F Murray Abraham) are away. There Dave’s mother (Ellen Burstyn) is sitting on a green couch—it has deep, personal significance—and refuses to leave. Dave’s brother Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans) is there too, and soon their sister Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle) will arrive to try to coax their mother away from the sofa. It’s an intriguing opening, one tinged with mysteries about these people and this forlorn place, which ultimately fizzles due to its absurdist aims.

After the forced bursts of energy, nightmarish dream sequences, and a strained bit of self-absolution recede, you soon realize that writer/director Niclas Larsson’s “Mother, Couch,” a morose, nonsensical family drama is about as interesting as the lint between the cushions. “Mother Couch” draws from several wells. Taking place mostly in this larger-than-expected furniture store, the film utilizes a combination of the building’s myriad showrooms as one continuous liminal space whose ambiguous temporality recalls Charlie Kauffman’s penchant for wielding mundane settings to interrogate hidden anxieties. The type of escalating deadpan absurdity that is reminiscent of Roy Andersson is also present. But more than any filmmaker, the entire film suggests Paul Thomas Anderson. From the setting of a furniture store that seems to exist at the end of the world to the franticness of Dave, you can’t help but feel “Punch-Drunk Love.”

Unlike PTA’s oddball rom-com, however, “Mother Couch” lacks a soul, or at least one worth investing in. From his uneasy relationship with his soon-to-be ex-wife Linda (Lake Bell) to how often he forgets to care for his young daughter, Dave isn’t terribly likable. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; Kauffman’s work, for instance, routinely features aloof, self-absorbed people dealing with their own psychological shit. But Dave, who is similarly parsing his past, is too passive, shallow, and boring to make you interested in this world, its actions, its characters, or him. The camera also lacks a point of view. For much of the movie, we’re never quite sure if the film is about Dave or if he happens to be the most interesting person among this lifeless lot.

The script similarly plays hard-to-get. Originally based on Jerker Virdborg’s Swedish novel Mamma i soffa, Larsson changed and re-tooled much of that story’s content—those alterations are apparent. For much of “Mother Couch,” Dave’s motivations are ambiguous. Larsson further leans on the couch as a heavy metaphor for the inability to process and move on. We discover that Dave’s mother wasn’t the best mom, having children with three different men (hence McGregor, Ifans, and Boyle, each playing a sibling, confusingly having different accents). We also learn that his mother kept the letters Dave wrote to his siblings; he had hoped to use these missives to get to know his brother and sister.

On their own, these are questions, but they are not motivators. Larsson, in fact, doesn’t get to what should be the heart of the film—what Dave wants—until the final twenty minutes. But by the time we arrive there, if we stick around long enough to do so, we’re barely invested enough to care. Instead, Larsson relies on creaky humor, the kind of off-kilter bits that work in existential Swedish works but don’t translate to America, to hold the viewer in check. And it’s simply not enough.

On-the-nose monologues by Burstyn, an underwritten Russell—who seems to be there solely to ogle McGregor—and an overactive score by Christopher Bear that also so desperately wants to emulate “Punch-Drunk Love” but can’t are the other elements that lack substance. And McGregor, who sure is making every drastic actorly choice possible, no matter how saccharine or strained, doesn’t offer much else. The oddness this world teases does come to fruition, turning into a hellish seascape that somehow transitions into McGregor arriving at a pond where surely some form of absolution or closing of a wound will begin. However, that full turn toward the strange comes too little, too late.  

I’m sure someone will find solace in a film attempting to emulate the angst that occurs when you have unresolved issues with your terrible parents. But “Mother, Couch” seems just as unresolved and just as terrible. So you’re better off compartmentalizing it, believing that it never happened until one day, the sight of a couch mysteriously gives you narcolepsy.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

Mother, Couch! movie poster

Mother, Couch! (2024)

96 minutes

Cast

Ewan McGregor as David

Rhys Ifans as Gruffudd

Taylor Russell as Bella

Lara Flynn Boyle as Linda

Lake Bell as Anne

F. Murray Abraham as Marcus / Marco

Ellen Burstyn as Mother

Director

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