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'The Good Mother' (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 04, 1988

From moment to moment in "The Good Mother," Diane Keaton is so truthful, so tantalizing and full of life that you almost forget that the character she's playing is a fraud.

Directed by Leonard Nimoy, from the Sue Miller novel, "The Good Mother" is retrograde in an up-to-the-minute way, and for that reason, it may well strike a chord. Basically it's another in a long line of '80s "Be Careful" movies. It's a cautionary tale -- like "Fatal Attraction" -- that tells us to keep a close watch on ourselves, that passion and openness are to be distrusted, and that if we want to preserve what is dear to us we have to play it safe.

The story is focused on Anna (Keaton), a divorced Boston mother who works in a medical lab and teaches a little piano on the side. The title comes from Anna's relationship with her 6-year-old daughter Molly, played by Asia Vieira. Tolerant, nurturing, attentive, Anna has a gift for mothering that borders on genius. The day-to-day routine of getting the kid into her clothes, fed and out the door seems a sort of higher calling for Anna, and she goes about her domestic chores joyfully, giggling happily to herself.

Though Nimoy creates an idyllic portrait of the bond between mother and daughter, at the same time he conveys a sense that something's missing -- namely a man. Of late, men have been creeping more and more into Anna's thoughts. At a girlfriend's one night, she talks about how she has never been a very erotic person, especially with her emotionally reserved ex-husband Brian (James Naughton). But the desire to be a passionate, open, sexy person has always been latent inside her, and so when she meets a good-looking Irish sculptor named Leo (Liam Neeson), who wines her and dines her and holds out the promise of a full, transcendent sexual life, she falls unreservedly, heedlessly in love.

The outline of a story in which a repressed woman is transformed by the love of a virile, artistic swain will be recognizable from countless earlier films. (Though it dates back decades, let's call it the Alan Bates "Unmarried Woman" Syndrome.) The foundation for Anna's yearnings is laid at the film's beginning, in a forever-amber prelude in which she reminisces about her rebellious, lusty Aunt Babe. A radiant young redhead played by Tracy Griffith, Babe rows off into the starry New England nights at their family homestead for romantic rendezvous, gets pregnant, goes to Switzerland to have her baby, then, unsteady from drink, dives out of a rowboat and drowns. She's not so much a character as Nimoy's easy idealization for the rebellious romanticism that Anna feels is missing in herself.

Nimoy has structured his film as a series of commercials -- there's a spot for the unbridled Babe and the life of passion, a spot for Anna the miracle mother, a spot for the happy coupling of Anna and Leo. And this appears to be a natural mode of thought for him. Nimoy sees things -- emotions, relationships, life -- in absolute terms, free of nuance or complexity. He doesn't so much direct his scenes as act as their account executive.

As part of the commercial for how wonderful things are between Leo and Anna, we are shown scenes demonstrating the marvelous, easy rapport that the new boyfriend, who has virtually moved in, has built with Molly. All along we are meant to feel the care and love that Leo, and especially Anna, bestow on Molly, and what's pictured here is a liberal, progressive but structured approach to child-rearing in which it is perfectly normal for Leo to sit on the bathroom floor reading aloud from children's books as Anna and Molly splash together in the tub.

At this point, though, Nimoy, who is working from Michael Bortman's script, introduces another commercial -- one in which all the happiness Anna has claimed for herself is dashed on the rocks. The incident that causes the crackup is deceptively innocuous and is only reported to us, not shown. One night when Anna was working late and Leo was taking care of Molly, the girl came into the bathroom where Leo was taking his shower and, being curious as most kids are, began to ask questions about his genitalia -- and then asked if she could touch him.

The repercussions from his assent -- which was given with the intent of dispelling any potential hang-ups about the body and sexual matters -- are devastating for Anna. Immediately her ex-husband, who heard the story one morning while shaving ("Leo lets me see it. He lets me touch it"), introduces a custody suit, claiming that Anna is incompetent. Most of the second half of the movie is set in court, and to be blunt, these scenes are a bust, even though Jason Robards and the wonderfully clipped

Joe Morton play the attorneys. (Robards is Anna's lawyer and if I ever go into court I want a guy looking just like him standing next to me.)

There's not much suspense in these scenes, though we sort of play along and pretend not to know what's going to happen. But we might not if Keaton weren't such a marvel. In "The Good Mother" and, earlier, in "Baby Boom," Keaton has managed to wring miracles out of material that would have stymied lesser actresses. And in both cases her work has exemplified the most exalted form of contemporary star acting. All the signature Keaton mannerisms -- the hesitations and stammers and idiosyncratic, amusical phrasings, the hair business, the seductive coyness -- are there in both performances, as they were whenever Bogart was on screen, or Davis or Hepburn. But added to them is a very modern sense of authenticity. Her characters may have things in common, but you sense that each has a different and unique interior life, that each one thinks differently.

"The Good Mother" is a movie about a woman who loses everything precious in her life because her boyfriend let her 6-year-old daughter touch It. And though there's poignancy in this, and even some plausibility, the film is too loaded with issues and positions on issues. Keaton outclasses her material. She has the kind of talent that, at times, exposes phoniness in the writing, and in some of her scenes, like the big moment speech in which she tells Leo of her passion for being a mother, her acting degenerates into hype -- as if she's trying to sell an idea she can't fully believe in. (In another, when she goes to ask her grandparents, Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright, for money, she looks poleaxed.)

At other times -- as in her scene with the court psychologist -- she burrows into her emotions and sustains them until we're spent from the pain and the exhilaration. And at these moments, "The Good Mother" is very nearly cherishable, if only for that. Even shackled to banalities, Keaton has the power to amaze.

The Good Mother is rated R and contains adult situations

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