Those who’ve seen “Ghost World” may think they’re experiencing deja-vu during the initial half of “My First Mister.” The first part of Christine Lahti’s new picture (it’s the actress’ feature directorial debut) focuses on a cynical, unhappy, goth-attired high-schooler not unlike Enid, the character Thora Birch played in the earlier film; now called Jennifer, she’s portrayed in this instance by the suddenly ubiquitous Leelee Sobieski (this is her third movie in the past month, following “The Glass House” and “Joy Ride”), but her attitudes are much the same, and when she befriends a reticent older man (in the former case Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, here a laid- back Albert Brooks as a fellow named Randall)) and begins having deeper feelings about him, the similarity grows even stronger. But then things change radically. While “Ghost World” kept its emotions in check even while it engaged sympathy for its heroine’s plight, Lahti’s picture tumbles deep into tear-jerker territory, morphing into a disease-of-the-week movie wallowing in the most obvious messages about the importance of family and forgiveness and New Age spiritualist blarney. While Birch’s character maintained a sort of isolationist integrity to the very end, Sobieski’s Jennifer is transformed into someone far more ordinary and banal; by the close she’s undergone as complete a makeover as one of the sack-sack girls who are beautiful underneath who used to populate John Hughes’ high school comedies–just think of Ally Sheedy in “The Breakfast Club,” for instance. And the result is audience manipulation of the crudest, most blatant kind. When “My First Mister” lumbers into its final mawkish reels, and the majority of the audience is sniffling around you, you might find it difficult to stifle a derisive chuckle. While others might be considering that old line “I laughed, I cried” as applicable to their feelings about the movie, you could be thinking that getting nauseous is the more appropriate reaction.
That’s not to say that there aren’t good moments in “Mister,” particularly in the first half. Sobieski shows far more skill and breadth than in either of her earlier pictures of this year, even if the weepiness and budding romance she has to feign later on takes her way into soap-opera territory. The film also has a bunch of talented performers in lesser roles, though none is at his best. There’s John Goodman, for example, who does what amounts to a “Saturday Night Live” sketch of an aging hippie as Jennifer’s divorced father. Carol Kane does a Sandy Dennis-like happy-repressed bit as her mom early on (loosening up later, thank heaven). Michael McKean is on hand as her cartoonishly straight-laced stepfather as well, as is Mary Kay Place, smoothly efficient as usual as a kind-hearted nurse. (Desmond Harrington, on the other hand, is unbearably stiff as a long-lost son, of all things, who shows up in the final act.)
What finally saves Lahti’s picture from being a debacle, however, is none of these (and certainly not Jill Franklyn’s script, which contains as many of the cliches of afternoon TV drama as one could stuff into a mere two hours), but Brooks. As Randall, the highly controlled but good-natured clothing store manager who gives Jennifer a job and becomes her best (indeed, only) friend, Brooks abandons his customary Woody Allenish hyperdrive and draws a likable, convincing portrait of a phlegmatic guy, a creature of habit who nonetheless has the kindness to reach out to people very different from himself. It helps that Randall has all the picture’s best lines (could Brooks, a talented writer, have contributed some of them?); whether he did or not, Brooks delivers them with a throwaway air that makes them all the better for being understated. Just like Buscemi in “Ghost World,” Brooks pretty much makes “My First Mister,” and though even he can’t turn it into a good film–the script won’t allow that–he does render it less obnoxious than it would have been in his absence.