After destroying the prelapsarian world in Noah, indie director Darren Aronofsky has returned to his formula. In his sensationalized allegory Mother! Aronofsky sends a nameless woman (Jennifer Lawrence) through a gauntlet of masochistic paranoia, blames modern male chauvinism, and then demolishes Millennial society.
By casting Jennifer Lawrence as a put-upon hausfrau whose husband (Javier Bardem, playing Man) subjects her to endless impositions and disrespect, Aronofsky hopes to match the surprise box-office success of Black Swan (his rip-off of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion). It’s possible to read pro-choice madness in the film’s pregnancy subplot — in which Lawrence suffers the most horrendous postpartum depression since Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.
Aronofsky longs to be thought of as an artiste like Polanski, so Mother! includes cynical sentiments about male indifference (far less subtly than Polanski did). But an obsessive filmmaker doesn’t necessarily rise above schlockmeister status. Aronofsky’s mania for various tribulations never finds a higher meaning, and his emphasis on female discomfort (Lawrence looks zombified, both clueless and hypersensitive) makes him the perfect filmmaker for the Hillary Clinton era. When Woman (as the script names Lawrence’s character) apologizes for objecting to Man’s rowdy houseguests and embarks on a cleaning-up spree, she begs, “I don’t want to interrupt, I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” The line could well have come from Hillary Clinton’s recent campy memoir, What Happened.
As soon as Lawrence speaks that apology, you know the next plot turn will be an even more nihilistic, dystopian catastrophe.
The story takes place in the middle of Woman’s renovation of a deluxe mansion, a premise recalling that underrated, slapstick-perfect ’80s comedy The Money Pit. But it quickly devolves into a Get Out bound to please pink-hatted feminists. This pointlessness seems designed for recapping — the strict reciting of plot that satisfies the spoiler-alert generation that cannot think through allegory or perplexity (such as Woman’s nightmare of hordes brandishing quasi-religious ashes on their foreheads).
It’s Aronofsky’s off-kilter sense of proportion that makes his movies laughable. Woman’s marital slights turn into the nuisance of more and more uninvited houseguests (starting with Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer as a creepy married couple), and then global calamity invades. Because Woman’s character never develops, it’s impossible to relate these surreal events to whatever concerns are in her psyche. Woman’s discombobulated personality displays only a couple of felt moments: her first response to death, then pregnancy (wackily out of order, then endlessly repetitive).
Aronofsky’s protagonists seem to play out some personal neurosis: “I stink,” Man says after working outdoors; Woman smiles, saying, “I like it.” Not to mention Aronofsky’s own martyr complex. Lawrence and Bardem are not sexy here, just unappealing. Lawrence’s rapport with director David O. Russell lent her performances a charming immediacy (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joy) as Russell worked through his issues toward sanity; Aronofsky doesn’t. His eccentric filmmaking represents a culture that values the opposite of sanity. As Man, the self-obsessed writer, Bardem comes up with the film’s moral: “Now there is nothing left, just a vast and silent darkness.” Aronofsky puts that insight on an ugly, cacophonous loop.
Despite the exclamation point in its title, Mother! doesn’t rate comparison with Albert Brooks’s genial 1996 Debbie Reynolds movie of the same name. Brooks’s films (Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America, Defending Your Life, Mother, The Muse, and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) took a comic, self-deprecating approach to personal obsession. Self-deprecation is what goes haywire in the new lifestyles drama Brad’s Status, by writer-director Mike White.
Brad’s Status, like Mother!, is a drama only because it is humorless. The story, which focuses on a nonprofit fundraiser (Ben Stiller) from Sacramento who accompanies his son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of prospective East Coast colleges, becomes maudlin and self-pitying. Brad’s insufferable post-yuppie egotism is indulged rather than critiqued. His obsession with status makes him compete — in retrospect — with his own college friends who are now fantastically successful and out of touch. “Life was not their battlefield, it was their playground,” Brad sulks.
This miscalculated approach predates the snowflake generation, but it shares the same sense of entitlement. Brad’s own immaturity also competes with the pampered child he has bequeathed to the millennium. The spectacle of Brad’s selfishness can only amuse viewers who share it without regret or remorse. Brad’s jealous fantasies exaggerate or demean other people, including his wife: “Did her contentment undermine my ambition?” They are like modest reboots of the overscaled daydreams in Stiller’s colossal misfire The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, another misguided Gen X update of middle-class narcissism. But Brad’s Status also unpleasantly resembles Noah Baumbach movies that humorlessly assert the maker’s egotism.
White belongs to the same breed of indie filmmaker as Baumbach and Aronofsky — they all pursue private obsession in ways that inflate personal issues into generational motifs. (White himself plays the only satirical figure — Brad’s ex-friend who becomes a wealthy filmmaker flaunting a gay-millionaire lifestyle for Architecture Digest.) In this stage, which precedes the Asperger’s style of today, privileged indie filmmakers give up social responsibility and ethical behavior to justify their own self-centeredness — as when Brad covets his son’s nubile multiracial classmate or tells off the old college buddy (Michael Sheen), now a D.C. bigwig who pals around with George Stephanopoulos.
The indie film movement is mostly leftist. Brad’s Status reveals that bias, especially in its deceptive sentimentality. The ego on view is not the same one examined in Paul Mazursky’s ethnic humanist comedy-dramas about class. Instead, White and Aronofsky, in their upscale locales, indulge the bourgeois insecurity and self-protective envy that link conservatives and liberals of a particular class. Empathy and moral consciousness are what’s missing from both movies. Until these kinds of entertainment are recognized for what they are — and refused — the Hollywood Left will always win the culture war.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally misidentified the film Black Swan. It has been corrected.