You Can Go Home Again, But Can You Leave?
DIRECTED BY AZAZEL JACOBS (2008)
STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 29, 2020/KINO LORBER
It’s pure coincidence but seems very strange that the two movies I’ve watched this past week have both been about emotionally stunted 30-something men in crisis, with writer-directors being explicitly self-referential. The first movie was Benjamin (2018), which review you can find here. Momma’s Man came 10 years earlier and although it might be considered a comedy it’s a much more melancholy one.
Mikey (Matt Boren) is a doughy, quiet, ordinary guy with a wife and infant daughter in California. In New York for a work trip and a visit with his parents he finds his stay extended by a cancelled flight. But then something strange happens which is that external obstacles to returning home are removed and yet Mikey stays. And stays. And stays. It even becomes clear as time goes on that he can’t leave his parents apartment. Instead, he regresses into a second adolescence. His button down shirt gives way to just an undershirt and his pants give way to wandering around his parents apartment in his underwear. Mikely retreats into this childhood bedroom (a loft stuffed with the detritus of his earlier life to read comics and practice playing guitar and singing truly terrible songs he wrote in high school. His puzzled parents at first welcome him to stay while his flight is sorted out, then gently inquire why he isn’t going home, becoming more and more concerned.
Writer-director Azazel Jacobs cast his own parents, experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and artist Flo Jacobs, to play Mikey’s parents. He also set Momma’s Man in the New York loft apartment that the Jacobs have occupied since the 1960s. It is an amazing set: an apartment so crammed with toys, books, albums, cds, artwork, boxes, et al., that the characters pass through narrow passage ways to navigate the space. At one point Mikey’s mother is ironing and we see the elaborate rigging system she uses to keep hanging clothes above her head until needed. It’s both a wondrous and a claustrophobic environment, and for Mikey it seems to suck him inexorably into childhood.
Matt Boren gives a nuanced performance as Mikey, who is not especially sympathetic. His wife is desperate to reach him, but he shuts his phone off. When his parents try to talk to him or express concern Mikey lies and blusters. His father gravely watches from under bushy gray brows. His mother frets and offers Mikey food, coffee, tea, brownies – knowing that her son is in trouble but having few resources available to help him.
Ken and Flo Jacobs have never acted in a narrative film before. Initially Flo’s performance seemed amateurish enough to distract me but as time passed I found her character growing on me. Her awkwardness became the awkwardness I have felt with my own adult children when I don’t know what to say or do for them. Flo Jacobs has a strange, angular beauty – she reminds me in this film of Shelly Duvall or Louise Lasser – and a physical fragility that makes it all the more moving when, near the film’s end, she pulls Mikey onto her lap. “Ma, I’ll crush you,” he says. But this mother’s love is made of sturdier stuff and in her embrace, Mikey soon collapses into tears.
Mikey’s crisis is a bit of an enigma. The film never explains itself, but the emotional stakes seem real and somehow familiar. Our childhood homes and belongings can be powerful totems of times when life seemed less buttoned down and planned out. But as Mikey finds out the hard way, trying to live in the past is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Momma’s Man was shot in 16 mm and Kino’s new blu-ray preserves the film’s grainy beauty. Special features includes several deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, and audio of a thoughtful discussion Azazel Jacobs had with his parents after the film’s premiere.