"Momma's Man" is dedicated to the proposition that in every man's heart lives a homesick little boy, and if he's very unlucky his childhood bedroom is still waiting for him. Complete with glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling.
The last time we saw filmmaker Azazel Jacobs was with 2005's "The GoodTimesKid," a lovely little surrealist-identity-crisis comedy. The new film finds Jacobs bringing it back home in every conceivable way. On the surface, it's a straightforward low-budget tale about a grown man who visits his parents and refuses to leave. Yet deeper, darker currents move through "Momma's Man," eddying around fears of letting go on both sides of the generational divide. The fact that Jacobs has cast his own parents and filmed in the NYC loft in which he grew up only sharpens the film's teeth.
Yet "Momma's Man" is gentle enough to be a comedy as well. When we first meet Mikey (Matt Boren), he's heading to JFK after a weekend visiting his mother (Flo Jacobs) and father (Ken Jacobs). In Los Angeles await his wife (Dana Varon) and their year-old daughter. The subway arrives at the airport shuttle; he can't get off. He returns to his parents' apartment, making vague excuses about getting bumped from his flight.
Days turn into weeks, and Mikey clings, barnacle-like, to the flotsam of his childhood: rereading old comics, going through his Garbage Pail Kids collection, playing guitar and singing awful adolescent lyrics he scribbled in notebooks years before. Physically, Boren is built on George Costanza lines, and his Mikey seems swaddled in spiritual baby-fat. After a while, he turns off his cellphone so he can't hear his wife's pleas to come home. Anyway, he is home.
Jacobs is on to something here: the panic of kids raised during the '80s and '90s as they look around and realize they're adults. Mikey and his knuckleheaded childhood friend Dante (Piero Arcilesi) are still Beastie Boys on some level, but they no longer have to fight for their right to party, and it scares the bejesus out of them.
So Mikey curls fetally inward, refusing to leave the apartment and playing out ancient spats with his perplexed parents. The angry yet satisfied expression on his face when Dad tells him to keep the music down says it all: This is his last teenage rebellion, and he wants it to last forever.
The multiplex version of "Momma's Man" would probably star Ben Stiller as Mikey, and Diane Keaton and Al Pacino as Mom and Dad. It would be an obvious, knockabout affair that took place in the suburbs, and it would have a healthy DVD afterlife. Jacobs, by contrast, is shooting for a tone of elliptical poetry, and casting his own parents goes a long way toward realizing it.
Ken Jacobs, of course, is a legendary experimental filmmaker active since the late 1960s (he has a movie in the National Film Registry). His wife, Flo, is a wispy art-hippie, the sort of woman who hasn't cut her hair in 30 years. They're lower-Manhattan American Gothic: He's distant and patriarchal, she's tremulous and smothering. ("Can I get you anything?" is how she handles confrontation.)
So they're like parents everywhere. One of the many layers of "Momma's Man," though, is about the children of the 1960s East Coast avant-garde coming to terms with the fact that their lives will be less interesting, more bourgeois, than anything they grew up with. You can't blame Mikey (or Azazel, for that matter) for being scared. The Jacobs' loft is a warm and fantastically cluttered cave to hide in - a womb of creativity.
How do you leave such a place? The answer "Momma's Man" eventually comes up with is the least convincing part of the movie. An earlier shot, one close to Bunuel, shows Mikey immobilized at the threshold of his parents' loft, one foot poised eternally above the staircase as he tries to rejoin the real world. Right there, you sense, is where Azazel Jacobs feels at home.