The Good Mother (1988) from Tuna and Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

A mother, Diane Keaton, is divorced and devoted to her daughter. She is fiercely independent, refusing financial help from her rich family. We find that she was sexually unfulfilled throughout her marriage, but is beginning to discover her libido. Enter Irish sculptor Liam Neeson, who transforms her into a true wanton hedonist, and becomes a part of the family. Life is bliss, until Keaton's ex shows up and informs her that he has filed a petition to revoke her custody, because Neeson has molested the daughter. We see the court case, and witness a logical but highly unsatisfactory resolution.


Tracy Griffith shows her breasts
Ebert and others went to great lengths trying to explain why this film didn't work. There is certainly a powerful message about what can happen to you in the legal system, especially where minors are involved. There is a great love story in the second act between Keaton and Neeson. Keaton's family is developed well, and we see some of why she is who she is. I think there is an easy explanation as to why this film does work. It starts off well enough, with Keaton's favorite aunt (Tracy Griffith), herself a teenager, explaining that she is in the doghouse with the family because she is pregnant, and showing Keaton her breasts and tummy. Then, cut to the present day, and we have a plot that has Keaton going through a sexual awakening with Neeson, and, in doing so, gaining self esteem she has always lacked, and then everything falls apart do to a sexual incident. This center third of the film, which deals nearly entirely with sex, has absolutely no nudity. Perhaps Keaton had a no nudity clause. In that case, director Leonard Nimoy should have opted for a different actress in the role.
Even with the problems, the message affected me, both the first time I saw it years ago, and today on the new DVD. The Boston, Cambridge and Toronto locations are lovely, and the transfer is outstanding. Technically superb, and with enough message that it overcomes part of the plot problems, The Good Mother is, for me, a near miss.  
Scoop's notes in yellow: (spoilers)

My reaction to this film is confusion. Liam Neeson was showering one day when the little girl asked if she could touch his penis. Since he knew that Keaton was really into openness, he just let her. The ex-husband heard from the daughter, "Liam lets me touch it", and that's all she wrote. There was also an incident where the little girl climbed into bed with them and they made love after they thought she was asleep. Because of these incidents, the courts considered that Keaton was an unfit mother, and awarded custody to the father.

The first problem is that we don't know what to believe. The incidents happened off camera, so we are in the same position as the judge in the case, having to rely on the testimony of the two or three people who were present, and the words spoken by the little girl to the court-appointed psychologist.

Therefore, I tried to put myself in the judge's seat. If Liam is telling the truth, then it doesn't make too much difference which decision he makes. But what is Neeson is lying? What if Neeson enticed the little girl to touch him, as the ex-husband seems to believe? In this case, the judge would be endangering the child's welfare by sending her back to Keaton, because Keaton and Neeson were still together. Since the judge can't say for sure whether Neeson is telling the truth, it seems to me that he made the right decision. The courts are entrusted with the welfare of the child. Sending the child to the father seems completely risk-free in either case. Sending the child to the mother could be a disaster because she is still with Neeson, and Neeson might be lying.

Tough call, but the judge did what he had to do to protect the child.

Going one step further, neither Neeson nor Keaton denied that they did make love with the little girl in the bed, even though we didn't see this or even suspect it. I don't know how modern psychologists feel about this, but everybody in the movie seemed to think it was reckless. Since we didn't see the act, it's hard to form an opinion. If they were bouncin' around like crazy, yelling obscenities, and stuff like "fuck my asshole, and fuck it hard" - well, then that was reckless and abusive to the child. If they were quietly rubbing together in the dark under the covers, maybe I would have a different opinion. Like the judge, I know nothing, I saw nothing, so I'm thinking maybe they were going nuts with advanced S&M practices with the little kid in the bed, in which case the right decision would be to send the kid back to the father.

I guess. You see there is another problem. I don't know what professional child psychologists say about all this.

Also, I don't know much about what is and isn't harmful to do in from of a kid, so it would have been helpful to have multiple psychologists testify on this score. The judge could have asked - "well, what if they were sportfuckin' in the same bed - is that a case of child abuse?' - "well, what if they were rubbing away noiselessly, would that be so bad? - except for the very rich, haven't most people made love with their children in the same room since the origins of homo sapiens?" "What about this touching thing? Couldn't that be justified on the basis of developing healthy openness?" This is pretty technical stuff, really, and I don't know the answers. The judge should have asked these questions to professionals, and I should have been able to hear the answers, but no dice.

So we don't know what happened, and even if we did, we don't know whether it was bad or not. The movie keeps us at such an emotional distance that we just don't know what to think. At the end of this film, I didn't know what Keaton and Neeson actually did. I didn't know what the legal system considers inappropriate. I didn't know what psychologists consider inappropriate. Considering that I was completely in the dark on all counts, I had no P.O.V., and absolutely no emotional identification with the characters. I didn't care what happened to any of them.

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 1/4

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: domestic gross: $4 million


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. (Scoop: D+, I guess. I also found it very tedious and low-energy.)

Return to the Movie House home page