My First Mister (United States, 2001)
Beware Opening Night films at film festivals. More often than not, they disappoint. Such is the case with Christine Lahti's My First Mister, which was given the undisputed honor of opening the 2001 Sundance Film Festival. From audience members and critics alike, the reaction to this picture seems to be unanimous across the board: great first hour, then it all comes crashing down. It's as if Lahti (who previously won as Oscar for her short, Lieberman In Love) and screenwriter Jill Franklyn both resigned a little beyond the midpoint, and people without a clue were brought in to wrap things up. Rarely have a seen a motion picture with such a promising start finish so badly. 60 minutes into My First Mister, I was thoroughly engrossed. A half-hour later, I desperately wanted the whole mess to end - immediately, if not sooner.
LeeLee Sobieski and Albert Brooks play the participants in what develops into a March/August romance. They are (of course) polar opposites. Brooks' Randall, the owner of a men's clothing store, is an anal, regimented individual who keeps his feelings locked up tighter than a strong box. Sobieski's Jennifer, who starts work at the store on a trial basis, is a fairly typical Goth. Her face is adorned with piercings, her untamed mane of hair is a mixture of purple and black, and her garb is appropriate for a funeral. In fact, she spends a good portion of her spare time brooding and writing different versions of her own eulogy. She also lacks a sexual identity, saying, "I don't think of myself as a teenage girl or a woman - I'm just the opposite of a boy."
Randall and Jennifer's relationship, which starts out as a contentious one between an employee and her boss, develops into a sweet friendship, then a bit more. The actors are wonderful in these roles, treating their characters with the dignity they deserve, but the script isn't as kind. Just as things are starting to get interesting, with a low-key sexual tension and feelings of romantic love intruding into the mix, melodramatic plot twists and bizarre tangents take the narrative way off track. Suddenly, My First Mister is less about the characters and their relationship than about subplots and supporting players. And, once it starts down this unpromising road, the movie never recovers. Sobieski and Brooks are still around, but their performances become muted and the easygoing humor that marks the first half of the movie takes on a strange and unnatural feel.
Ultimately, Lahti and Franklyn deserve the blame. They take the audience to the brink of where the characters are forced to confront some difficult issues, then cheat us by shying away from them. It doesn't matter whether or not Randall and Jennifer consummate a sexual relationship, but, by never dealing with this situation in a convincing or straightforward way, My First Mister comes across as a tease. Another thing that doesn't work in the film are Jennifer's relationships with her mother (played by Carol Kane), stepfather (Michael McKean), and father (John Goodman). These individuals are initially represented as caricatures, so later attempts to position them as key elements of an emotional catharsis for Jennifer simply don't work. The payoff fails, like most of the film's second half.
My First Mister certainly isn't a disaster, but it is a disappointment. Had the film's latter portions proceeded along the arc begun by the endearing first hour, this might have been a movie worth lauding, but, given the entire package as it actually exists, the only thing worthy of consistent praise are the performances of the leads. For her next directorial effort, Lahti needs to make sure that she has a complete script in place, rather than something that fails to deliver after a strong start.
My First Mister (United States, 2001)
Cast: Albert Brooks, LeeLee Sobieski, Desmond Harrington, Carol Kane, Mary Kay Place, Michael McKean
Screenplay: Jill Franklyn
Cinematography: Jeffrey Jur
Music: Steve Porcaro
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
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