Film #6: The Good Mother
Today we will be reviewing the film The Good Mother ,starring Diane Keaton, Liam Neeson, Jason Robards, and Ralph Bellamy. It is adapted by Michael Bortman and directed by Leonard Nimoy. Leonard Nimoy!!!!
As always, we start with the plot. The film starts with a Keaton voiced narration that sets up her background. She, as Anna, grew up in a very wealthy family controlled by a patriarchal grandfather (Bellamy). She spent her summers being driven to the family estate by a lake and witnessing the moral, aristocratic repression that her family was forced to live under. Everyone was scared of her grandfather except for one aunt who liked to take on rebellious actions in order to try and set Anna free of conventions. Then the aunt gets pregnant, is sent away, ends up permanently drunk, and dies in a tragic drowning accident. Anna dedicates her life to living in repression after this.
We find Anna sometime later, working in a lab with a lab partner who ignores her, divorced from an passionless marriage, and raising her young daughter Molly, who she is teaching about sex. She also teaches piano to make ends meet, which, we find out later from her disappointed grandfather, is the remnant of a failed career as a pianist. "Her Bohemian lifestyle", he calls it. She has one friend, Ursula, who is seen in a small number of scenes and played by the always good, Katey Sagal, and no time for much of a life.
She and her ex husband Brian (James Naughton) seem to have a decent relationship, but her life is stiff and stagnant. That all changes on the day she meets free-spirited artist Leo (Neeson) when she dumps out his laundry from the dryer. Who hasn’t had that happen? They begin a passionate relationship that frees up all of her “repressive” inhibitions and includes being naked in front of Molly. We see this development, but it is mostly only talked about, although there is one particularly awkward scene when he is sitting on the floor of the bathroom while Molly and Anna take a bath together. One night Molly has a bad dream and walks in to Anna’s room and finds Leo and Anna together and she falls asleep in bed with them. This night sets off a chain of events in which Brian sues Anna for custody of Molly. We find out later that this action is due to another "incident" between Leo and Molly while Anna is not at home. Anna hires a lawyer (Robards) and has to crawl to her grandfather for money. The rest of the film becomes a courtroom drama as a struggle is waged between Anna and Brian’s attorneys. To find out the outcome of all of this, you will have to watch for yourself.
What I thought. I am on the fence on this one. On one hand, I thought the acting was pitch perfect. I think the first time I ever saw Neeson was in High Spirits (to be reviewed later) and even then I did not know who he was through a string of movies later (Leap of Faith, etc) until he became a permanent name in my head after Schindler' List. Here, he plays a man who has to take the fall for a misunderstanding. He is a man who is so passionate for Anna and the family he has never had, that he suffers more than anyone around him.
Keaton is great; check out her scene where she has to ask Bellamy for money to see some hard core thespian magic. Of course, it is always a plus when films call in the "old guard" (Robards and Bellamy). Theses two men run acting circles around the youngsters. Check out the scene in Robards’ office when Anna first presents him with the case. You can literally see him trying to mask his disgust with a cool demeanor while his mind begins to spin out his legal argument. Also, how can you hate a film directed by Leonard Nimoy who was fresh off of Three Men and a Baby? If you don’t like Nimoy as a director,than perhaps someone needs the Vulcan neck pinch.
It is the story where I have trouble. It is adapted from a book by Sue Miller. The film seems to want me to be sympathetic to Keaton and Neeson for involving a 6 year old in their “free to be you and me”lifestyle. It as if it wants me to renounce societal norms on morality and say , “Little girls and boys should be open to adult lifestyles and sexuality, and parents should include them in that openness in super inappropriate ways”. It is most likely a commentary on rejecting the conservative values of the era that were on display in movies, TV, and in the White House. I am supposed to be mad at Brian for asking for custody after what happens between Leo and Molly. As a father of a daughter, I cannot side against him. I would take the same action. I cannot see Brian as the villain in this story as much as the film tries to make me want to. On the other hand, that is why I think it is also an interesting film; it takes a mile long journey through the arch of Anna’s decisions and guilt and it seems to want to open a dialogue, as if the film wanted to be titled “The Good Mother?” The film held my attention, it is beautifully directed by Nimoy, it was constantly moving and changing; I am just not comfortable with its possible message. Maybe I am wrong and prudish. What do you think readers?
Here is what Roger Ebert had to say about The Good Mother in 1988