The writer-director Albert Brooks grew up in Los Angeles, but he claims that people always assume he's from New York. What he means, of course, is that they think he's a New York Jew. With his babbly insecurity, his overtherapized neurotic patter, Brooks, in comedies like Real Life, Modern Romance, and the great Lost in America, has always been a Left Coast answer to Woody Allen. He's perhaps the only comic actor I've seen who can turn hostility into a form of high pleading -- the sound of a man running circles around his own anxiety.
In the '90s, however, something unexpected has happened in Brooks' work: He has begun to mellow. MOTHER (Paramount, PG-13), his terrifically likable new comedy, descends, in spirit, from an entire generation of Jewish-mother jokes. Brooks plays a Los Angeles science-fiction novelist who, having suffered through his second divorce, decides that he's a failure, and, what's more, that the reasons for his downfall all go back to his relationship with his mother, the nitpicky authority figure who never really believed in him. To solve his little problem, he drives up to her home in Sausalito, redecorates his old room, and moves back in with her. The film turns into a game of oedipal Ping-Pong, a light-fingered argumentative dance between mother and son. The spectacle of a middle-aged man still hung up on his mother's oppressive mixture of love and finger wagging goes right back to Portnoy's Complaint. But there's an essential difference: Brooks has taken this archetype of modern Jewish comedy -- the mother as destroyer -- and reconfigured her as a daffy WASP, a buttery-voiced middle American hen played by that original queen of nice, Debbie Reynolds. Mother is shrewd, funny, and sweetly engaging; it's the first film Brooks has made that may even bring a tear to your eye. But with the exception of a couple of scenes, the comedy doesn't really explode the way it did in some of those earlier Brooks films (or in his performance in Broadcast News). He's still a babbling neurotic, but now he really does seem like he's from California.
Mother has one classic scene. When Brooks first shows up at the house, Reynolds attempts to feed him with a parade of ghastly inedibles she's been storing forever in the freezer. His hilariously shocked double takes are inspired -- you can practically taste the ancient sherbet. (The slyness of the scene is that it's really a joke about inadequate nurturing.) But that's the only time in the movie when I fully believed in Brooks' exasperation. His delivery can still be exquisite. When Reynolds says ''I love you,'' he gives a perfect resigned spin to the line ''I know you think you do.'' Mostly, though, he seems irritated by parental foibles in the way that most of us are, and not truly driven crazy by them. The best reason to see Mother is the deliciously off-kilter performance of Debbie Reynolds, who speaks in pure honey-sweet tones yet keeps planting tiny seeds of disapproval, using her maternal ''concern'' as an invisible form of warfare. You never quite catch her doing it; the character doesn't even know she's doing it. She just is who she is, and by the end you realize that that's her glory. B+