What happens when an immovable object meets a fatigued force that keeps whacking its head against said object in defeated frustration? That’s the question proposed by Niclas Larsson’s debut feature, “Mother, Couch.” Executive produced by and starring the once-boyish, now often forlorn Ewan McGregor, the film follows David, a frumpy middle-aged family man whose mother (Ellen Burstyn) plants herself on an old couch in the storage room of a furniture outlet, flatly refusing to vacate the premises. Though Larsson builds from the increasingly existential dilemma in striking ways, “Mother, Couch” finds itself caught running in place before grasping for sentimentality in its final minutes.
The central kerfuffle kicks off as David surveys the far-flung outlet Bob’s Furniture, tagging along with his older brother, Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans). The dim swamp of a business lays out an absorbing, homely stage for the drama, with awkwardly arranged floor plans and dusty stacks of boxes matching the emotional clutter that David has accumulated by overexerting himself through decades of affirmation-seeking among his family. As the screws tighten on him, more relatives enter David’s orbit, who hope to help him resolve the situation but provide some unwelcome reminders of his own lifelong sense of alienation.
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As with the ascending chords of Christopher Bear’s harsh, plinky score, Larsson directs “Mother, Couch” as an unforgiving climb, with David battered around by others until his will to hold things together reaches a breaking point. McGregor makes for a compelling punching bag, at first showing small but acute chinks in temperament until it all unspools at once in unattractive, soul-baring fashion. A grown-up haunted by childish insecurities, it’s a performance that recalls William H. Macy’s brooding prodigy-turned-loser in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.”
Larsson also plays some fun musical chairs with a diverse cast of characters — though David’s wife (Lake Bell) and two kids mostly appear to be an afterthought for the film (as they are for David). Ifans’ affable but gruff demeanor demonstrates an essential kind-hearted nature that also seems to be ever so slightly inaccessible to David. Lara Flynn Boyle adds a rough edge as the eldest sibling, Linda, who smokes like a chimney and has long since abandoned feigning any semblance of affection for her mother.
But it’s Taylor Russell who emerges as the film’s sharpest barb. As Bella, the bright and conspicuously young daughter to the store’s owner (F. Murray Abraham), Russell brings an element unlike anything else in the film. She befuddles and then unsettles David, who interprets her candor as nymphishness and has no clue how to appropriately field it.
That Bella, the character most removed from the family squabble, is far and away the most destabilizing force in “Mother, Couch” foretells the script’s larger disinterest in exploring the complexities of its most weighted relationships. The film hums along as nearly every scene builds to some new defeat for David, small or large, but Burstyn’s looming ice queen remains too oversimplified an adversary. Her self-imposed crusade has an immediately obvious worst-case scenario ending that Larsson seems hellbent on arriving at. Though he constructs some unease, things are kept on a tight leash. The tension shows. The film seems afraid to attempt an actual shock factor and David’s failures register as less and less consequential.
After the saga of emasculation pushes David to the brink, “Mother, Couch” attempts a flagrant change of pace and fully tips into the surreal for its denouement. It’s a bold gesture, but one that seems like a retreat, prescribing a one-size-fits-all resolution for a series of promising dramatic arcs. Grandly unveiling the extent of its aesthetic ambitions, the film somehow becomes thinner. The characters have hardly been given opportunity to evolve beyond their first impressions. The determined, one-way dramatic escalation has built to a lot of dress-up for what is, functionally, a pat on the back.
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