Unlikely as it may seem, Leonard Nimoy is one of the hottest directors in Hollywood. ("In the land of the deaf, he with pointed ears is king?") Successes with the Star Trek movies, followed by Three Men and a Baby, have made him highly sought after. Nimoy is now attempting to parlay his successes with comedy and science fiction into a broader career. The Good Mother is his bid for respectability. While a reasonably good film itself, Nimoy is not likely to strike box-office pay dirt with it, nor to earn the respect of his peers.
The Good Mother, based on a novel by Sue Miller, is a serious drama about a custody suit filed against a divorced mother. The underlying theme is not the custody battle itself, but the concept of motherhood in modern America. Is motherhood a sufficient self-definition for a woman? How much should a mother sacrifice for her child? Should a mother have complete say over the way she raises that child? The novel apparently addressed those questions squarely. The film deals with them obliquely, preferring to get down into the TV movie aspects of the story.
Given the choice of director and leading actress, this approach was probably inevitable. While Nimoy made Star Trek IV entertaining, and Three Men and a Baby delightful, he had given no indication that he had any special talent for more serious work. Diane Keaton, who plays the mother in the film, has made a habit of having herself miscast in films based on successful novels. The Good Mother continues that trend. In order to explore the issues without bogging down in the melodrama, The Good Mother needed a director experienced in the complexities of drama (such as, perhaps, Sydney Pollack) and an actress who brings less history to her roles (such as, perhaps, Barbara Hershey). But Touchstone chose commercialism over the possibility of brilliance.
What's most disheartening about this choice is that the powerful drama that obviously attracted all involved to The Good Mother doesn't come through nearly as strongly as it should. The fault can be divided between Michael Bortman's script, Nimoy's direction, and, to a lesser degree, to Keaton. Bortman's screenplay tries to preserve some of the complexities of the novel, particularly in an extended prologue that is connected to the rest of the story by theme, rather than by plot. This sort of digression is a commonplace in novels, but is much trickier in films. Bortman's script fails to integrate the prologue's theme into the rest of the film, yet later scenes depend on information from the prologue, making it indispensible, yet irrelevant. While this is the most obvious failing of the script, the construction never seems very strong. Also, it takes far too long to get to its main conflict, yet still fails to establish the necessary background to make that conflict work. The dialog, on the other hand, is fairly good. It sounds realistic without being trite, and, with reasonable economy, conveys what must be told.
Nimoy's direction is competent, but undistinguished. The film has no strong visual feel. It looks like a well-lit TV movie, with predictable two-shots and alternating closeups during conversations. Nimoy tracks the camera only when the characters are walking, and otherwise moves it only when absolutely necessary. The single shot that deviates from this dull pattern is itself a cinematic cliche - a static medium shot of an emotionally devastated character who doesn't move as the lighting slowly changes. You've definitely seen this one before, and done better. David Watkin, the cinematographer, lights the scenes warmly and well, but otherwise does not make a strong contribution to the film. The pacing of The Good Mother is staid and reverent, with only a moment or two of excitement. On the up side, Nimoy does well with the actors, at least with those who the script has provided sufficient meat to sculpt a character. And, while his direction shows no brilliance, Nimoy makes no terrible mistakes. The Good Mother is definitely a good job of craftsmanship, if not a work of art.
Keaton's performance is probably about as good as it could be, within the boundaries she brought to the role. To some extent, Keaton will always live in our memories as Woody Allen's eccentric girlfriend. Her success in a part often depends on whether the audience can accept that Annie Hall might have "grown up" to be that woman. And I suppose Annie Hall could have grown up into The Good Mother. Keaton fails to lose herself in the role, but gives a reasonable portrayal of what it might be like for a woman like her to have the experiences of the character in the film. The problem is that her image distances us from the character, it keeps bringing up the unreality of the film. A lesser known actress might have been able to suck us in to the reality of a mother in danger of losing her child, rather than constantly reminding us that it's only a movie. Keaton's performance does carry much of the necessary anguish and passion. (Perhaps the only avoidable failing in her performance is that she does not show us the character's strong bond to her child. She seemed more attached to the child in Baby Boom than to her screen daughter here.)
The script provides a few other parts worthy of notice. Jason Robards does his usual wily lawyer act as Keaton's attorney. It is, as always, a good, entertaining act. Ralph Bellamy's part, as Keaton's grandfather, seems to have suffered in the transition from novel to screen. His character feels like there's a lot of explanation left out. Oddly, the omissions actually work, perhaps because of the mystery. His relationship with Teresa Wright, who plays Keaton's grandmother, provides the film's only suggestion that the film's characters have some life that isn't a part of this story. Wright is very fine in her part. She is sympathetic, yet strong, and convinces us that the woman she plays really lived.
The best of the supporting roles is that given Liam Neeson, who plays the new man in Keaton's life, the unwitting catalyst for the catastrophe that befalls her. Neeson has often been cast in unsympathetic roles, but The Good Mother offers him practically a romantic lead. The script is more than generous with his character, giving him good scenes and several important dramatic moments. Neeson makes the most of his opportunity.
The Good Mother is a good film, one well worth seeing. It has power in its portrayal of a devoted mother in danger of losing custody of her child without having done anything wrong. Keaton gives a fine performance, the supporting cast is good, the script and direction competent. The only problem with The Good Mother is that it could have been much more than it is.
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