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One thing that immediately becomes apparent in “Prime” is that Jewish mother, Lisa (Meryl Streep), a therapist, is not overly caricature-ish. Lisa wants her son David (Bryan Greenberg) to marry a Jewish girl, and he seems to be okay with it — at least at first. There’s a bit of talk that Lisa doesn’t support her son’s career as an artist, but the real problem between the two is that she doesn’t understand that he truly has talent. The main plot is a romance between David and an older woman, Rafi (Uma Thurman), who is a patient of Lisa’s. Unfortunately, the romance is bland, but the relationships and resolutions seem honest. A better movie would have been about the arc of the mother-son relationship, and how Lisa and David gain a better understanding of each other; that movie is in there, just subdued.
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The twice-divorced, sci-fi-writing son, played by the film’s director, Albert Brooks, in “Mother,” may be named John Henderson, but who is anybody kidding? John is definitely Jewish, as is his brother, Jeff (Rob Morrow) — and both are hungry for the approval of their mother, Beatrice (Debbie Reynolds). Although this sounds familiar, these characters have more to them than meets the stereotype. First, unlike the typical rendering of a Jewish mom, Beatrice is withholding rather than intrusive. And son John’s quest is to find out why he’s drawn to disapproving women.
He moves back in with Beatrice, in the guise of “an experiment”: to figure out why her maternal bearing is as sweetly iced as the 3-year-old sherbet she keeps in her freezer. It turns out that the answer could have been found in a chapter of” The Feminine Mystique”: Beatrice is a frustrated writer, resentful of having been relegated to the role of housewife and mother, and therefore especially resentful of her son the writer’s career. Epiphany completed, John goes on to meet a woman who is a fan of his books — and Mother starts writing.
“Brighton Beach Memoirs” (1986)
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As you would expect from a movie adapted from a Neil Simon play, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” abounds in both stereotypes and humor. Smart-alecky teenage son Eugene (Jonathan Silverman) and his no-nonsense mother Kate (Blythe Danner) drive each other crazy, but also treat each other with warmth. “What am I going to do about him?” Kate laments to her sister while Eugene tells us, on his way to yet another mother-directed errand, “If I grow up twisted and warped, the world will know why.” Still, there are more pressing problems to occupy this mother and son than the nature of their relationship, such as the Depression, illness in the family and having to provide for other relatives. In comparison, the self-esteem issues of the son in “The Guilt Trip” seem like a self-indulgent walk in the park. But who are we to judge?
“Garbo Talks” (1984)
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Like “The Guilt Trip,” “Garbo Talks” is about a son’s quest on behalf of his mother. In this case, passive son Gilbert (Ron Silver) becomes determined to grant his terminally ill mother, Estelle (Anne Bancroft) a last wish: to meet her idol, Greta Garbo. As Estelle puts it: “Why shouldn’t I get to meet her? I’m dying.” And who better to make this happen than her only son, an accountant who gets no respect but often comes forward to bail his leftist mother out of jail for misguided activist pursuits? Estelle is larger-than-life, boundary-averse and a pain in the neck. Although she loves her only son dearly, she didn’t attend his wedding because she didn’t want to cross a picket line. Yet thanks to Bancroft’s tour -de-force portrayal, Estelle’s character rises above caricature. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Gilbert, who, like Rogen’s character in “50/50,” Andrew, seems to be phoning in his Jewish mother’s son performance for most of the film. Yet as he gets closer to finding Garbo, Gilbert sheds his good Jewish boy cocoon and metamorphoses into a man who finally stands up for himself.
Marla Brown Fogelman is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Jeremy Fogelman is a D.C.-based film and pop culture critic and associate member of the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association. His articles can be found at CliqueClack.com