Nothing is quite right in My First Mister, the feature directorial debut from actress Christine Lahti. For starters, a young woman gets hooked on a middle-aged man for no apparent reason. Later, bad things happen to good people, but we’re asked to learn something from the experience that just isn’t supported by the plot. Even the title is off—it sounds too much like Volume I of the memoirs of a Malaysian teenage prostitute who grew up to become prime minister or something.
Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski, fresh from her triumph in The Glass House) is a 17-year-old goth who’s only happy when it rains. She pierces herself, wears tons of eyeliner and writes gloomy poems about how much she hates the world and stuff. She even carries opera glasses, which she uses the wrong way as a metaphor for the dismal state of ophthalmologic care for self-righteous teens in this country. She’s got her mother (Carol Kane) and her stepfather (Michael McKean) convinced she’s plotting the next Columbine, or at least plotting to use very poor table manners.
Out of absolutely nowhere, Jennifer develops a fixation on Randall (Albert Brooks), the manager of a clothing store in the Century City Mall. She gets a job in the store, where Randall gently instructs her on the finer points of being human while admirably resisting the urge to bone her. But Jennifer also gets her licks in by generally forcing him to loosen up. They develop a fairly intriguing friendship that’s about two degrees left of Creepsville—until a melodramatic twist sends everything into a downward spiral.
On its edges, the film exhibits the potential to be affecting, but it simply doesn’t try hard enough. Neither Sobieski nor Brooks has developed a clever, unique or memorable spin for their respective characters. There’s nothing wrong with being taken down this particular path (misunderstood individuals find each other and come together against odds; it’s an old standard), but Lahti and her script have nothing new to say about it. The picture almost seems proud of its lack of originality. In laboring to make us feel emotions it hasn’t earned, the film kills its own original spark, which is glimpsed only in the occasionally entertaining byplay between Jennifer and Randall.
When viewed more broadly, My First Mister obviously is a bald-faced attempt to clone the odd tenderness of Harold and Maude or any other badly mismatched-couple dramedy. At its worst moments, and there are more than a bunch, it’s so frantically manipulative and fake that it’s almost difficult to bear, particularly with Brooks’ saggy face filling the screen (is there an actor working today besides Billy Crystal who looks more like a constipated troll in close-ups?).
Moreover, Jennifer is just boring, self-obsessed and not particularly bright—she’s the first drill team captain ever to become a goth. A film built around this simple little character couldn’t possibly provide the redemptive spring that powers a good melodrama. We aren’t going to care about her character just because she’s sad. Unlike Lahti, we don’t have to do everything the script says.
My First Mister is everything that Ghost World, a similarly themed film, was not—shallow, predictable, vain and interminably morose, even when it tries to be happy. This relationship between a boring girl and the quiet salesman who kind of loves her never gets past the creepy vibe of a paunchy 40-something guy connecting with a 17-year-old girl, no matter how chastely they do it. Get a room, you two—and while you’re at it, take this movie with you.
My First Mister (R) H1/2 Directed by Christine Lahti. Starring Leelee Sobieski, Albert Brooks and Carol Kane.