Sunday, March 27, 2011
Deconstructing Jude: Maternal Madness in ‘Mother’s Boys’
Curtis shines as Jude Madigan, a prodigal mother from hell who returns after three years of gallivanting around Europe and tries unsuccessfully to charm her way back into the lives of the husband and trio of blank-faced sons she abandoned. But despite Jude employing the most beguiling of her feminine wiles, estranged husband Robert (thick-browed Peter Gallagher) doesn’t bite, instead filing for divorce with plans to start a new life with assistant school principal Callie (Joanne-Whalley-Kilmer). She fares no better with her sons, who have taken to the sweet-natured Callie like traumatized puppies much to Jude’s consternation.
Eldest son Kes (Luke Edwards) has fared the worst, perhaps because he’s able to grasp the concept of the mental illness at work here even if he can’t understand the full implications of Jude’s sociopathology. Freud would have a field day with the big elephant of an Oedipus complex in the room here, especially when Jude rises like Hera from the baths, displaying to Kes in full nudity her Caesarean scar that both marks the spot of his physical entrance into the world and symbolizes the special, lasting bond between mother and son. Furthering the manipulation, she explains to the boy how she was in labor with him for two days because he didn't want to leave her. It’s one the film’s genuinely disturbing moments, appropriately alternating between discomfiting and skin-crawling.
The venerable Vanessa Redgrave has a welcome – albeit underutilized – supporting role as Jude’s mother, Lydia, whose own complicity in turning a blind eye to her daughter’s abuse at the hands of her father is hinted at in a hospital bed confessional. The scene is pivotal, and the audience can almost see Curtis cross over the thin line between sanity and insanity she was straddling to begin with. Despite some serious pathology at work here and the constant undercurrent of psychosexual tension, the film is surprisingly psychology-light, opting instead for full-tilt thriller territory that never quite gets past a half-tilt. Unfortunately, the story lurking beneath Elliot Davis’ moody cinematography and Barbara Cassel’s overdressed sets demands more than the film is ultimately able to deliver before devolving into a clichéd, implausible ending reliant on a perfect storm of circumstances.
Curtis has a grand time playing against type as villainess here, ditching her damsel-in-distress past with gleeful unrestraint. From the moment she drives into town in a flurry of white – car, outfit, stylish locks – you just know she’s put her babysitting, prom-going, train-riding days long behind her. It’s a glorious role reversal and Curtis proves she’s up for the task. In one of the film’s best scenes, Jude pays Callie a visit at the boys’ school and in a moment of deranged abandon smashes a framed photo of the reconfigured Madigan family – her family – against her own forehead in an attempt to frame Callie for assault. The ensuing gotcha grin as Jude picks up a sliver of glass and slices her forehead is pure Curtis smirk. It’s hard to fault her then when the threadbare script by Barry Schneider and Richard Hawley leaves her to chew on the scenery a bit. Even when she’s channeling Glenn Close and sliding dangerously close to parody, Simoneau pulls her back from the cliff; Jude, the character, isn’t quite as lucky by film’s end.