THE STORY – Three children are brought together when their mother refuses to move from a couch in a furniture store.
THE CAST – Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Taylor Russell, Ellen Burstyn, Lara Flynn Boyle & F. Murray Abraham
THE TEAM – Niclas Larsson (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 96 Minutes
What to do with “Mother, Couch?” A simple plot description makes it sound like a quirky dramedy: While visiting a closing furniture store, sadsack David (Ewan McGregor) finds his life thrown into disarray when his elderly mother (Ellen Burstyn) sits on a couch and refuses to get up. His siblings (Rhys Ifans and Lara Flynn Boyle) are no help, and the shop staff (Taylor Russell and F. Murray Abraham) are initially accommodating but expect to be paid. This does not in any way prepare you for the experience of actually watching the film, though. Niclas Larsson’s film goes from merely odd to batshit insane rather quickly, leaving an unprepared audience stranded in a surreal adventure that makes so little sense they’ll be struggling to follow what’s happening.
Frustratingly, the film keeps teasing that it is leading up to a big what’s-it-all-about reveal, but it never comes. Pointed lines about the characters’ relationships and events from their past abound. Still, there is no context for what they are pointing toward, and Larsson’s screenplay is resolutely uninterested in fully explaining itself. While there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, “Mother, Couch” offers so little context that it becomes impenetrable. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to tell not only if the events we are witnessing on screen are real or in the character’s heads but also which characters we are meant to identify with on this particular stage of the journey.
For a film like this to work, it has to have a strong, solid point of view that the audience can always grab onto when everything gets so crazy. Earlier this year, Ari Aster was able to do this in his epic “Beau Is Afraid,” which at least kept every moment grounded in its main character’s perspective and provided context clues to piece together the backstory while keeping the actual story legible. On the other hand, Larsson offers only the fact of who the main characters are to each other for the audience to use as an anchor, diving headlong into surrealistic imagery and dialogue in a way that pushes the audience away instead of inviting them to lean in. Even at the film’s end, it is unclear what actually happened and who exactly it happened to. This goes beyond questions of what is “real” or isn’t and to such important matters as why what is happening is happening and why we are watching it. When the film begins trotting out labored symbolism about David having a knife in his back, it is clear that the film has not fully worked out what it wants to be and do, or at least how it wants to be about what it’s about.
The film does have an ace up its sleeve, though, in the form of Ewan McGregor, who delivers one of his best performances as the ever-more-stressed David. Faced with being the one sane man in a world gone mad, McGregor slowly ratchets up David’s nervous intensity until he is at a fever pitch, plumbing the depths of his soul to come up with an emotional arc that is palpable even if the story supporting it makes no sense. The actor has always had a sense of vulnerability that makes him instantly relatable, which is a godsend here. When so much of what is happening onscreen is this surreal, having someone with McGregor’s infinitely likable presence at least helps to put us in his shoes, growing as confused and frustrated as David does as things get weirder and weirder.
The problem is that at least David knows everything he’s dealing with, even if his subconscious has difficulty processing everything. On the other hand, the audience only knows what he tells us, which amounts to the fact that his mother wasn’t the greatest and that he never knew his siblings growing up as they had different fathers. While the entire cast is committed to everything they’re being asked to do, it’s in service of a script that absolutely does not care about the audience and their ability to understand what is happening. “Mother, Couch” is presented less as a puzzle for the audience to solve than as a trip for them to be taken on, a trip where only the pilot knows the flight plan and the windows are completely obscured. And also, there might not be a plane. Or a destination. That could be invigorating in the right hands, but it’s just enervating here.