Mother Couch 2023 Movie Review
Heads will be left thoroughly scratched by this rather bewildering curio, a rambling yet not entirely ineffectual comedy-drama about a fractured family forced together by unusual circumstance, starting out somewhat of this world before falling headfirst into surrealist fantasy. Affection for Mother, Couch! might be amplified by the recent phenomenal success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, another film using quirky, fantastical elements to tell the story of a family unit in crisis, but even the many, many hardcore fans of this year’s best picture winner will struggle to hold on until the end here, on a rickety runaway train hurtling towards disaster.
Its passengers at least seem blissfully unaware of their fate. The crackerjack ensemble gives it their all, almost enough to save a script written with half the confidence with which it is performed. Ellen Burstyn, who has shown an impressive commitment to amplifying new, independent voices in her older years, plays the mother of the title, sat on a couch in an unusual vintage furniture store, refusing to get up. Her sons, played by Ewan McGregor and Rhys Ifans, and daughter, played by Lara Flynn Boyle, all try different tactics to get her to leave, aided by Taylor Russell’s accommodating store-owner’s daughter. Writer-director Niclas Larsson, making his feature-length debut, has assembled a dream cast (also including the forever under-utilised Lake Bell and F Murray Abraham, fresh off an Emmy-nominated White Lotus bump) but they’re constantly running too far ahead of him and his messy, malformed script, lumbered by a withholding opaqueness that intrigues before it starts to annoy, a mystery box one will be content to leave unopened.
We’re attached for the entirety to McGregor’s put-upon problem-solver, the youngest son lumped with the responsibilities that his more wayward siblings refuse to confront, a peacekeeper growing tired of his role, helping a parent who never really helped him while also becoming a parent of potentially similar incompetence. It’s his finest work for a while, the actor often blandly miscast in films that smooth down the edges that made him famous, and he tries hard, at times exhaustingly so, to add texture to a character with very little, attempting to fire up an emotional core that never really sparks (in a merciful twist, especially for McGregor, the film is accent-free, each of the three children speaking in their natural dialect). It’s all one long stress dream for him and for us, the film flirting with flashes of horror as sound design and brief moments of violence that keep things uncomfortably tense, and with Burstyn’s psyche disintegrating, there are scenes that recall her Requiem for a Dream breakdown, albeit with a softer touch.
Larsson’s skill as a director increasingly outpaces his ability as a writer and the film is visually involving even when it’s narratively alienating (if nothing else, it’s a remarkably assured sizzle reel for Larsson, film-maker, one that feels prepped to be mailed straight to the A24 offices). His actors remain so very committed throughout, even as the film revels in maddening incoherence, that you’re tempted to believe in whatever it is they’re apparently seeing. It’s especially rewarding to see Boyle return in her most notable role for years, chain-smoking and barking through the chaos, convincing us that there might be a late-stage career switch to character actor for the one-time leading lady. She’s so good that it’s then frustrating to see her sidelined, a big introduction that fades into nothing, one of too many thinly written characters left stranded as the film descends into a nonsensically twee finale.
It’s all a bit of a hopeless muddle dragged to the finish line by a troupe of impressively hopeful actors giving us brief bursts of electricity, almost insisting that we stay put, but unlike Burstyn’s stubborn mother you’ll be itching to be somewhere, anywhere else.