Like the humongous going-out-of-business furniture store where Mother, Couch takes place, the movie is a collection of intriguing pieces that mostly sit there unassembled or out of context, their potential unfulfilled. Exhibit A among the elements banging around this echo chamber of strained surrealism is the committed ensemble cast. It’s led by Ewan McGregor, as a stressed-out husband and father who’s trying, with little help from anyone around him, to lure his mother (a bewigged and scowling Ellen Burstyn) out of the retail outlet where she’s planted herself.
Rhys Ifans and Lara Flynn Boyle round out the story’s central trio of siblings, with Taylor Russell and F. Murray Abraham also inhabiting its peculiar world, a place that isn’t what it seems. Whatever drew this strong cast to Niclas Larsson’s debut feature remains elusive in the finished product, which stirs up questions about the illogical situation the characters find themselves in but never inspires a compelling need to answer them.
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Adapting Jerker Virdborg’s absurdist novel Mamma I Soffa (translation: Mom on Sofa), Larsson, a Swedish actor turned filmmaker (focusing on shorts and commercials until now), has crafted a puzzle from narrative non sequiturs and arresting imagery. The camerawork is by Chayse Irvin, who mainly navigates richly designed soundstage sets but also inexplicably juxtaposes California locations with scenes of East Coast autumn. Late in the proceedings, after a torrential rain, Irvin captures a vision of McGregor’s character against a partly functioning neon sign. The scene stands out for its drop-dead beauty, but, in a way that’s emblematic of the film as a whole, its intended emotional impact is diluted by all the exhausting zaniness that surrounds it.
Mother, Couch begins with promise, though, and sparks of dry humor in the personality clash between McGregor’s put-upon David and his older brother, Gruffudd (Ifans), who’s as loose as David is tightly wound. David, who’s supposed to be on his way to his daughter’s birthday celebration — as calls from his wife, Anne (Lake Bell), remind him — has been sidelined to the emergency at Oakbeds Furniture, where his mother has declared her intention to remain seated on a green couch. Just to be sure, she’s brought along a knife to fend off any attempts to remove her.
David arrives in a black suit and tie — hardly kids-party wear, and the first clue that we’re entering a hall of metaphorical mirrors. Some of the rooms in Oakbeds, a massive, overstuffed emporium in the middle of an edge-of-the-world parking lot, are decorated and fully functioning, all the better for what will turn into an overnight stay for David, complete with a home-cooked meal prepared by Bella (Russell), the young store manager with whom Gruffudd has established a warm flirtation. He also, apparently, has clued her in to family dynamics and factoids: “So you’re 48,” she says by way of greeting when David steps into the business’s clutter and gloom.
In Oakbeds and in a brief side trip to Mother’s house, Mikael Varhelyi’s terrific production design is an evocative jumble of furnishings and tchotchkes. Both as merchandise and as the accumulated treasures, junk and secrets of a lifetime, the stuff has a gravitational pull, and McGregor is convincingly distraught as a man struggling to find his balance against the weight. But the scenes in which David is fully up against it — a breakdown while talking to the 911 operator; an unnerving near-disaster of a day at the beach with his young daughter — feel like excursions into a different movie.
For good reason, David has always felt dissed and left out. Gruffudd is pleasant enough, in his offhand way, even if he didn’t invite his brother to his wedding. Their fuming sister, Linda (Boyle), with her harsh blond hair and constant cigarette, is a younger version of the mother she disdains. Burstyn turns up the glare, and Mother spews bitter memories along with bracingly unsentimental views of parenthood. Such moments of forthrightness land like information drops when layered between the ongoing inanity of Oakbeds. F. Murray Abraham’s double turn as Marcus and Marco, the brothers who own the store, amplifies the wacky. One brother is kind, one is not, and neither lands as a believable character.
It’s Oakbeds caretaker Bella, played with a deadpan combination of sweetness and complete lack of propriety by Russell, who most persuasively occupies a middle ground between the literal and the figurative in the bizarre retail setting. Veering between seductive, innocent and maternal, she becomes a kind of therapist to David, drawing him out by stating the obvious. “You all seem so broken,” she says of the three sibs, his fidgeting response a clear measure of just how sore a nerve she’s hit.
Christopher Bear’s score signals the various moods that Larsson’s screenplay teases. There’s whimsy with an undertow. There’s the percolating dread of horror-tinged suspense. Eventually, there’s a child’s rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s good to see a filmmaker taking chances and exploring nonlinear ways of telling a story. Whatever mystery the writer-director is attempting to brew here, though, never quite reaches a satisfying simmer, let alone the kind of full dramatic boil the material needs. For all the narrative subterfuge and convolution in Mother, Couch, it wraps with a muted, anticlimactic thud.
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