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Odd, Touching Couple

With refreshing wit, My First Mister elevates alienation and loneliness to a surprise climax.

It might take a major suspension of disbelief (or the ignorance of a space alien who's never seen a movie) for the average ticket buyer to embrace My First Mister, the good-natured and eventually uplifting first feature film directed by actress Christine Lahti. Because the premise here is that a sullen, tragically hip teenager with assorted body piercings and a penchant for third-rate death poetry will find bliss of a sort with a plump, buttoned-up clothing salesman who's thirty years her senior. Recall, to your heart's content, neatnik Felix Unger trying to co-exist with slob Oscar Madison -- melancholy Jennifer Wilson (Leelee Sobieski) and orderly Randall Harris (Albert Brooks) make for a much Odder Couple. At first blush they appear to have even less in common upon which to build what the psychobabblers call a "relationship."

What they do share is the oldest movie standby of them all: Loneliness with a capital "L." Holed up in her dark suburban bedroom with a collection of thrash-metal CDs and a notebook full of self-destructive scribbles, Jennifer is the very picture of teen alienation -- in fact, the same picture of teen alienation that pops up in every third U.S. movie. She's the sort who gazes at people through the wrong end of her binoculars and finds monstrous visions there.

Meanwhile, Randall is your standard repressed grownup. Each day he goes to his conservative shop at the mall, refolds the cashmere sweaters and returns home by nine, alone, to restack his magazines. The point, of course, is that both these outcasts keep the world at bay with elaborate emotional defenses. She snarls at her lame parents and wears black combat boots; he recedes into well-tailored anonymity. They are in sore need of spiritual reinvigoration, a need that's not exactly the height of originality.

Happily, Lahti and screenwriter Jill Franklyn (whose most notable previous credit is Seinfeld's famous "yada-yada" episode) manage to relieve the dullness of these lives with the occasional outburst of humor. A veteran movie actor best known these days for her stint as Dr. Kathryn Austin on TV's Chicago Hope, Lahti may have shot her first full-length flick in just 29 days on a budget that wouldn't cover Robert Downey Jr.'s weekly heroin bill, but she hasn't stinted on the yuks. In the course of Jennifer's and Randall's peculiar courtship, which begins when he unexpectedly gives her a job as a stock clerk, we are treated to some updated generation-gap humor (imagine these two at the record store or, better yet, the tattoo parlor, where the old guy asks for something "flesh-colored"), some sartorial conflict (he's not crazy for torn black leather; she sees him in an aloha shirt) and some outright confusion over just what their unexpected, growing friendship is becoming. It's not sexual, exactly, but not purely father-daughter, either. The tension in this uncertainty provides Mister's deepest, most rewarding laughs -- and its tenderness.

The players are gifted, and that, too, saves this quirky little picture from mediocrity. Writer-director-actor Brooks's deranged satire has enlived Hollywood movies for more than two decades -- is there a crazier sendup of domestic intranquility than Real Life? -- but he shows us another side here, a subtle, restrained Albert Brooks, reinvented as a painfully dislocated loner whose muted jokes are all at his own expense. Leelee Sobieski, who made a name for herself as Tom Cruise's nymphet in Eyes Wide Shut and the suspicious orphan in The Glass House, assembles another nice piece of work as a self-absorbed seventeen-year-old who comes to see that she's not the only human on the planet with troubles. Randall's troubles run even deeper than we imagine (I'm tempted to tell, but won't), and that's what, in the end, lifts Jennifer from her teeny-bopper slough of despondency into something like womanhood. Are we manipulated in the process? You bet, but the payoff is almost worth it.

Along the way we meet an appealing cast of supporting characters. John Goodman pops in as Jennifer's estranged father, a rollicking ex-hippie type. Young Desmond Harrington (Riding in Cars With Boys) emerges late as Randall's estranged son and, just maybe, Jennifer's soulmate. Mary Kay Place is Randall's only apparent friend from pre-Jennifer days. Suffice it to say that everybody winds up in the last reel at a kind of Last Supper, where the director literally erases characters from the table, one by one, to great emotional effect. Lahti got her first recognition as a director with a short film called Lieberman in Love, which won an Academy Award in 1996. Her first feature may not be the most original Odd Couple comedy in creation, but there's something genuine and heartfelt about it that promises better things next time around.

 
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