Were it not afflicted with a deranged sense of fantasy, this feature directorial debut by actress Christine Lahti (Dr. Kathryn Austin on Chicago Hope) would scoop us up in an inescapable bear hug. As it stands, it's cute, occasionally poignant and outrageously implausible. Step right up and witness a young man defining himself as "a bitter asshole," and a young woman admitting that she masturbates to a picture of Freddie Prinze Jr. Marvel at a retail manager who's kind and generous to his employees. Then hold onto that jaw as Los Angeles is depicted as a fun and pleasant place to live, where gaggles of Hassids cheerfully sway to Mexican minstrels belting out old Partridge Family tunes. Mm-hm, right.
One can't blame fledgling screenwriter Jill Franklyn for dreaming (although one can and should blame her for the "yada-yada" episode of Seinfeld), but her central character here starts off as an absurdity, threatening to undermine any semblance of reality. Even if we suspend our disbelief in order to accept 17-year-old Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski) as a goth-punk hybrid who shows up two decades late for her own cliché, she's still a ridiculous representative of that scene: no smoke, no junk, with fake tattoos and a functional sense of humor. With her artful swagger and progressive sensibilities, Jennifer is really a mod in goth's clothing, but, alas, Franklyn has accidentally written her as a Hot Topic caricature sent scurrying for cover after the breakup of Siouxsie and the Banshees.
It's only when the misapprehended gothic trappings are set aside -- or plied purposefully, as with Jennifer's cemetery lurkings or her contributions to "the eulogy business" -- that My First Mister shines for what it really is: a bittersweet dramedy and gender-reversed Harold and Maude. Once our death-obsessed heroine struggles with the saccharine optimism of her mother (Carol Kane), the barely there obliviousness of her stepfather (Michael McKean) and the desensitization of a school teeming with cosmetically altered brats named Ashley or Cody, she finds herself obsessed with Randall (Albert Brooks), a 49-year-old mentor who's her opposite in every way.
My First Mister shamelessly doubles as a fashion-conscious consumer's tour of L.A., so Jennifer gets fired from the cheekily named Retail Slut on Melrose Avenue and progresses logically toward "where the money is": at the hoity-toity Century City Mall. But don't forget, she's gothic, so -- eek! -- people there look at her weird. Driven by despair, Jennifer applies for work at a stuffy, upscale men's store, where she and Randall trade barbs, but the meticulous manager agrees to consider her for the position if she'll take the silverware out of her face. Thus is born one of those utterly impossible movie relationships that's guaranteed to bring everyone a new lease on life.
Nonetheless, it's in this unlikely pairing that the movie stops spinning its wheels and, surprisingly, heads off into astute and insightful emotional territory. With Jennifer hot and delirious, Randall could have been crafted as a Humbert Humbert or a Bluebeard (indeed, there's a dark secret locked away in his desk at home), but instead, Brooks -- often dismissed as the West Coast Woody Allen -- gets to dig into a glibly neurotic yet compassionately paternal role, putting his Manhattan-based forebear to shame. By assisting and announcing Jennifer's tentative entry into adulthood, Randall epitomizes the reluctant father, eventually becoming that far rarer entity, a successful one.
With three features out simultaneously, Sobieski seems to be the Hollywood flavor of the month -- heard anyone raving about Benicio Del Toro lately? -- but, indeed, the girl gives great face. Jennifer could have devolved into a little misery urchin (she cuts herself, she strokes her cat, she cuts herself), but the actress instills this jaded princess with warmth and candor. Whether she's flopping down onto graves "to feel the energy" or coaxing her stoner father (John Goodman) to attend a family shindig (which he defines as "very bad Fellini"), Sobieski refuses to leave her character stranded as a two-dimensional poster child for hopelessness. She walks through the ruins, yes, but to get to the other side. Denizens of Ghost World, take note.
My First Mister can be hard to stomach when it lingers on whining (Jennifer's "lack of alternatives," Randall's fear of just about everything), but its subtle, human touches work beautifully. Jennifer's mom sincerely believes that a cheerful dessert and a bit of bra-shopping will heal her daughter's dizzy soul. Reflecting upon his ex-wife, Randall recalls most vividly the baby powder she tracked all over their brown shag carpet. When he confides in his nurse (Mary Kay Place) that he's not a good relationship person, she curtly responds, "You speak for the world." Director Lahti stacks her movie high with silly clutter -- I never want to see Brooks feigning masturbation with a pool cue ever again -- but when she dispenses with the tripe and gets down to the stuff of life, she can tickle us to the point of tears.