An actual home movie, shot in the director’s childhood home with his parents playing themselves, Momma’s Man, completely unshakeable, is implicitly nostalgic, about a nostalgic man, but only because it has such an unsentimental commitment to the gap between past and present: You can never get to the past, but it can always get to you. Or Mikey. A married man with a kid from California, Mikey (Matt Boren) sleeps over at his parents’ one night when his plane is delayed, and for no proper reason, refuses to leave. A slacker Proust, he’s clearly trying to recapture his childhood and adolescence: He rereads comic books in bed, comes home drunk, eats the cereal his mom leaves for him in the fridge, watches Charlie Chaplin in his parents’ bed, tries to apologize to an old crush for something she doesn’t remember happening, and sings heartbroken love songs he wrote in high school on his acoustic guitar late at night (“Fuck fuck fuck fuck you”). It’s all a joke—history repeated with the recognition of the comedy it once was, as Mikey laughs and assures his parents he’s doing work. Yet this sober recognition is still something of a delusion: After a few months, it becomes clear that Mikey is not simply trying to rediscover himself for ironic value.
Presumably, this is a past and home he would have been delighted to shed a few years earlier: girl problems, geek obsessions, and Mom making sure he’s gotten enough to eat and is okay when he locks himself up in the bathroom (all that’s needed is her calling him at a bar to make sure he’s coming home). If Mikey were, instead of a frumpy, balding thirtysomething, the hero of a classic adventure like The Searchers, his secure home life would be pitted against endless adventures of unbridled excitement. Instead, he’s forced to choose between two lives going nowhere (or so it seems until the perfect final shot), two secure homes without much promise. Pretending to be a childhood superhero is as thrilling as Mikey’s life gets, or he wants it to get; homecoming is both an unattained goal, always out of reach, and an unavoidable snare. He simply feels the allure of inertia: Not far from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s upcoming masterpiece, Flight of the Red Balloon, all things always stay the same safe inside the hearth, while outside, Mikey finds himself older, the cool guy buying beer for underage kids by the river.
Cassavetes is the acknowledged influence, and like Cassavetes, director Azazel Jacobs has a reverent sense for present, lived-in experience: fumbling, fidgeting, fiddling. There’s halting speech, doodling on napkins, films projected, endless strumming of guitars, all shot in the Jacobs’s open workshop apartment, as the parents, both artists, set about at projects in the background; there’s a scratchy basement-tapes sense of lazy Sunday airiness, of nothing ever refined, of nothing happening for any reason except to happen. For his own part, Jacobs films the scenes with the usual half-shambling Indie camerawork following close against his subjects, though his favorite technique is to suddenly cut to a wide shot, a just-moving still life that unites the elements of the scene together, often with some small revelation of an unnoticed person in the background. As that person is usually Dad, played by the brilliant home filmmaker of the avant-garde, Ken Jacobs, as a curmudgeon (“Vinegar is my enemy”) alert to his son’s childishness, these portrait shots unite the elements as much as they put them at a distance, exposing the missed connections between the immobilized people on-screen.
Using 16mm film, Jacobs automatically films with a slight graininess appropriate for a movie that sees life as unpolished and constantly improvised. More importantly, the 16mm film gives the movie just the sense of animation and nostalgia it needs, never possible with flat and airtight digital, and Jacobs’s own breezy rhythms nearly excuse a trite, unnecessary score and some maudlin moments near the end that articulate what’s already clear. Nowhere is Jacobs’s sense of openness and Mikey’s sense of paralysis clearer than in the unbelievable—or much too believable—scene in which Mikey visits an old friend, now out of jail, who half-dances in his living room to the Indigo Girls and tries to get Mikey to join, as Mikey sits back in his chair and tries to be easy, as though it’s all a joke. The friend finds it all liberating; Mikey realizes it’s not.