Mommie Dearest Reviews
Original rating: 12-24-2012 (6/10)
Abuse is the central theme, whether abusing alcohol, her children, or her coworkers and lovers. But as over-the-top and eccentric as it is, it's not without a tender, sympathetic heart. The latter act of the film explores some acts of kindness and love between Christina, Joan, and her stepfather Al, who plays a small role in the film. Al is the head of Pepsi-Cola, putting Joan on the Board of Directors, but after his death they try to push her out - Joan is desperate to have work at this point, and threatens to harm the company's image if they don't keep her on. It's hard to tell if Perry is a totally conscious director and achieves intentionally hilarious effects, or if he's just completely lost and getting these good/bad results, but one thing that's awkwardly left to the imagination is the scene cutting away from Joan saying, "let's get to work" with the Pepsi board, and everyone getting their pens and papers ready, as if Joan is going to start calling some major Pepsi shots and delivering new product ideas! Did this really happen? It's funny.
There's a lot of funny in this movie, even when things are horrible. Joan loses her mind one night and forces the kids awake - a horrible act she continues to do throughout the movie, leaving us to wonder how exhausted these kids might be - and makes them cut all the plants down in the yard. Inexplicably, cuts keep showing up on her face, though nothing touches her. It happens four times that the camera cuts, and so does her face.
Name drop film title at least four times; it's what Christina is required to call her mother. The last time it happens is less creepy, it's suddenly sensitive, almost tear-jerking. We do get a sense that Joan loves her daughter and maybe regrets her outlandish behavior, but at no point in her life is she able to control herself.
My favorite sequence has to be Joan taking over the role of her daughter's 28 year-old soap opera character. She's got to be in her 60s by this point, but dresses like her daughter with a wig on, unable to remember lines are read cue cards. It's got to be humiliating for Christina, who's in bed and rolls over to hear the news, her response: "but she's supposed to be 28 years-old."
I like the disjointed time lapse that the whole film acts as. Scenes cut within one another, but the next piece of a scene may pick up some time in the future. When we get to Al and Joan's separate deaths, there is no buildup - they've already happened and we are smack in the middle of their aftermath.
Mommie Dearest is a gaudy spectacle, though this isn't to say some of it its 2 hour or so run-time isn't entertaining. This isn't to confuse it with good, oh heavens no. This is bad. Let's make that clear up front: Frank Perry's adaptation of Christina Crawford's scathing tell-all about her life with her mother (and who knows how true it is, maybe some, whatever, that was what it was) is a mess.
As a story being told from start to finish, it has no coherent structure, no real arcs are given to any of the characters - including Joan or Christina - and things simply... HAPPEN! (yes, all in caps) It's episodic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when it lacks any direction that isn't either wildly, flamingly hysterical or, really, too quiet and (like the actress Diana Scarwid who plays adult Christina) is possibly inert. There is no middle ground here. Experiencing Mommie Dearest is like taking cocaine: the whole first hour is a WTF rush that is howlingly funny... but then there's the come down in the second half, and it only recovers in fits and starts.
In other words, one may be curious about Mommie Dearest because of its notorious set pieces, more-so than any curiosity to see anything remotely close to how this was in "reality". It's a disastrously manic comic book version of Crawford, and Faye Dunaway, to her credit, gives it her all. What lets her down though is the direction from Frank Perry, who has made movies I've liked before (seriously, check out The Swimmer and see what he can really do), and especially the script. I'm not kidding when I say the movie feels so scattered: tonally, you get whiplash from, for example, Crawford winning her Oscar for Mildred Pierce one moment, and then the next is that 'Wire-Hanger' scene (which I'll get back to in a moment).
But also, things that should be simple to put in and possibly explain are left out and it leaves some truly WTF continuity gaps, whether it's involving what should be around when Crawford actually did things in her career, or, hell, the one I kept yelling, yes, yelling, at the screen about was the son Christopher and how he is strapped in to the bed, for seemingly NO REASON AT ALL), or that we lurch ahead from one point in time to another, how how the Pepsi husband dies off-screen after seemingly becoming a notable supporting character. On a smaller level things like Dunaway's eyebrows change from scene to scene (it could be shot to shot), or, hilariously, the hair being cut furiously by Joan on daughter Christina and the continuity so atrociously done there (I normally wouldn't notice that but here, absolutely).
Something that's hard to not notice is how cringe-worthy the dialog is; I don't mean in the sense that it's intentional. I mean that some - most - of the dialog is written not how people...actually...TALK (the highlight for me is when Joan tells the Pepsi husband that he is the soda-king or something like that - as if we didn't KNOW!)
In that first hour we see those years in childhood for Christina (how the girl doesn't seem to age or change is one of the great mysteries of life I guess, not unlike Joan up until near the very end of the film). It's a fun ride in the campiest way, at least for the most part - here we still see some scenes that don't work, but the pacing keeps things up as far as the conflict of 'Joan's going cuckoo, maybe bi-polar, and the daughter's along for the wild ride'. All of this seems to lead up to that wire-hanger scene, which I had seen part of before (it's hard to avoid), but in the context makes even less sense; again, this follows immediately after the Oscar-win scene (which has its own passive-aggressive bit where Crawford says nothing to her daughter).
And then Dunaway really does go to town and it's easily the most absurd and uproarious moment of the film (and there are a few). But here's a question I wonder anyone thought of: why were there any wire hangers even there, it's *her* mansion, and why would the little girl put one or more there if she knew it would p*** her off? Okay, maybe getting too logical about one of the key camp scenes, not to mention (in a non-sexual way) a domination-submissive thing... or maybe that's reading too much.
But a larger problem is that Perry can't keep the momentum up, whether from the issues with the script or something else. That wire hanger scene, I thought, was supposed to be the climax of the film - I mean, where do you go from THERE? - and is halfway through the run-time. From here Christina goes to boarding school, and it's here that it isn't as good-bad, more boring-bad, if that makes sense. Oh, there's a couple of highlights in this section, including the terrifying scene where Joan actually chokes her daughter out (it feels like the kind of moment that... uh... is no one going to call the police?) Yet once that conflict fizzles as Christina gets older(ish), or when Perry and the writers suddenly make the mother-daughter not, it's not as fun to watch. That may sound like not a good criticism, but watch it: if it's not grabbing at you with its sheer insanity, then it's kind of boring.
It could be easy to say that it's easy to blame on one actor (and Scarwind, again, doesn't do well here on a level apart from Dunaway), though at the same time, whether it's due to bad direction or bad writing, everyone here is bad. It's painful to watch even minor players like the actor as Louis B Mayer in his couple of scenes, which can also be attributable to shots going on for a little too longer, to a point where the drama is extended to oblivion. Mara Hoble as young Christina may fare the least-bad among the bunch, but is still left to be a one-note child no matter how much she tries.
Did I mention by the way this is over two hours? Had this been 90 minutes, or even 100, it could be a good sharp over-the-top tonic. At its length as it stands, and how its so structureless and without any 'spine' to the proceedings, not to mention how it doesn't know *what* tone to take as far as what the abuse to Christina does to the mother-daughter bond (sometimes they do fight, but then that goes away for... reasons off screen), and it lurches until its closing, which seems even for this movie completely tacky.
All this said... you'll never see a woman awkwardly cut down a tiny tree in the middle of the night the same way again.