MY FIRST MISTERR
While making the press rounds for Ghost World, director Terry Zwigoff delighted in telling reporters the various ways that MGM/UA had wanted to muck around with his film. From pushing Jennifer Love Hewitt for the part of Enid to recommending that the character of Seymour be made younger and more attractive, the studio seemed intent on transforming the movie into another glib teen comedy. It's a testament to Zwigoff's resolve that he was able to craft such an honest, sensitive and believable depiction of a May-September relationship within the high-pressured world of the studio system. How ironic, then, that the similarly themed but independently produced My First Mister, directed by actress Christine Lahti, turns out to be the kind of film Zwigoff fought MGM tooth and nail to avoid making. To be fair, Mister is not a carbon copy of Ghost World; for one thing, the relationship between the young woman (played by Leelee Sobieski) and older man (Albert Brooks) never takes a romantic, or at least sexual, turn. But the movie clearly wants to inhabit the same universe that Zwigoff captured so effectively--the world of the outsider, populated by society's freaks and geeks.
In this case, the freak is Jennifer (Sobieski), a 17-year-old goth chick whose likes include The Bell Jar, sarcasm, and hanging out in cemeteries. Her dislikes are everything else, from her ineffective parents (Carol Kane and Michael McKean), to her snotty classmates, to a society that is immediately prejudiced against anyone who dares to be different. The geek, meanwhile, is Randall (Brooks), the fastidious middle-aged owner of an upscale men's-clothing store where Jennifer applies for a job. His quirks range from an unhealthy obsession with magazines to a record collection consisting only of music composed before 1950. Naturally, these two wayward souls are made for each other, even if they don't recognize it at first. So, for reasons that are really only understandable within the movie's version of reality, Randall agrees to give Jennifer a chance and there begins a friendship that transcends age and…yada, yada, yada.
It's easy to get impatient with My First Mister early on in the movie's running time. It quickly becomes clear that Jennifer and Randall are little more than laundry lists of tics and mannerisms masquerading as real human beings. Their actions aren't so much motivated by their personalities as by the demands of the plot. In other words, they are exactly like sitcom characters, which is not surprising, considering that the script is the product of a screenwriter (Jill Franklyn) who began her career writing half-hour television comedies. Because most sitcoms have little more than 20 minutes in which to tell a story, the writers are trained to distill plot and character to their purest essence. Every scene must further the narrative and every character is given an established set of traits that are directly linked to the show's plot mechanics. Within the context of a sitcom, this formula works fine, even if it has become more than a little predictable these days. As the basis for a feature film, however, it can't help but produce a woefully underdeveloped story populated by unbelievable characters. Jennifer and Randall's friendship doesn't progress naturally. Every scene between them is based around an event: the first time they go for coffee, the first time she brings him to the cemetery, their first fight. It's like watching a highlights reel of a relationship; we are witnesses to every important instance, but none of the small, quiet moments that really define the kind of lasting friendship they're supposed to share.
Even if these moments aren't present in the original screenplay, the director can usually find a way to work them in during shooting. Unfortunately, Lahti has a tendency to speed through scenes, chasing after the big, juicy emotions and ignoring the beats in between. Her best decision was casting two actors who know exactly how to fill in the screenplay's blanks. Sobieski and Brooks are wonderful here, somehow finding nuances that actually give their characters a third dimension. Jennifer, in particular, is such a dull stereotype of a disenchanted teen, it's extraordinary that Sobieski is able to make her not only believable, but likeable. She's one of the few young actresses out there who doesn't confuse posing with acting. Brooks, meanwhile, takes a role he could have sleepwalked through and reinvents himself as an actor. Randall certainly has all the elements of his classic schlub persona, but Brooks actually dares to delve into the sadness that exists beneath the character's neuroses. When they're together onscreen, Sobieski and Brooks almost make you believe that Randall and Jennifer might actually have been friends in the real world.