'Back to Mom's' ('Retour chez ma mere'): Film Review

Courtesy of Nathalie Mazeas
A slow starter that gains in heart and humor.

This French comedy and box-office hit looks at the life of a recently unemployed, fortysomething architect who's forced to move back in with her mother.

The idea of moving back in with your mother when you’re 40 and she’s in her sixties will sound like a shiver-inducing horror scenario to most adults — and to some extent it is for the protagonist of the French feature Back to Mom’s (Retour chez ma mere). Thankfully, the film itself is more of a dramatic comedy, milking the frequently familiar situations for laughs, which finally start coming fast after a rather too leisurely setup.

With each outing, writer-director Eric Lavaine, who first shot to fame with the irreverently fabulous but also rather niche 2006 comedy Poltergay, has moved more steadily into the comedy mainstream, with titles such as Welcome Aboard and Barbecue featuring big local stars and raking in over $10 million each (a solid number but nothing record-breaking).

But Back to Mom’s, which benefits from the presence of comedy heavyweight Josiane Balasko in the title role, operates on a different plane and is Lavaine's biggest hit to date, holding on to the top position in the French charts for three consecutive weeks, while experiencing minimal drop-offs, thus becoming a bona-fide smash phenomenon. Anglophone producers looking for remake ideas might want to check this out, while in Europe, this should do well when it starts rolling out in non-Francophone territories in August.

Stephanie (Alexandra Lamy) is a 40-year-old architect who finds herself moving back in with her sexagenarian mother, Jacqueline (Balasko), after a bad business deal robbed her not only of a job but practically all her possessions. Their initial cohabitation is something of a disaster, which results in some light but also very predictable comedy, with Mom waking up her daughter at six in the morning (so she can go job hunting) or telling off her offspring for using the wrong type of cutlery to butter her bread (only in France, people!).

Indeed, Lavaine and regular co-writer Hector Cabello Reyes take their time to get to the much juicier midsection, which plays like an extended sequence from a Barrillet and Gredy comédie de boulevard (the duo wrote the original plays on which films as varied as Potiche, with Catherine Deneuve; Cactus Flower, with Goldie Hawn; and 40 Carats, with Gene Kelly, were based). The setting is a common one in plays (and movies): an extended family dinner, attended not only by Jacqueline and Stephanie but also Steph’s uptight sister, Carole (Mathilde Seigner, again Balasko’s daughter after 2012’s Maman), their bossy brother (Philippe Lefebvre) and Carole’s wallflower husband (Jerome Commandeur).

Creating tension at this family gathering isn’t only the friction resulting from Stephanie “profiting” from being back at mom’s (as if she wanted to be there) but also, in what feels like an appropriate theme for a film with a healthy female energy, their mother’s sexuality and womanly needs (an element that Lavaine and Reyes foreshadowed earlier in a funny sequence in which mom and daughter watch a steamy TV series together, which makes Stephanie very uncomfortable.) In fact, Mom’s been dating an older neighbor, Jean (Didier Flamand), for years and has decided it’s time to let her children know that their widowed mother has found love again. Why such an otherwise self-assured woman would not tell her children something like this earlier isn't convincingly explained but otherwise there wouldn't be much of a comedy; a lot of the dinner's tension hinges on the fact Jacqueline has told Jean to drop by at a specific time by which she will have revealed all to her children, though of course things don’t go as planned at all.

The film’s most hilariously spun out — yet fully sustained — joke involves a practically untranslatable running gag in which a famous local brand of frozen food and a regional dish turn out to be homonyms, giving the kids the impression their mom just heated up some stuff in the oven rather than having slaved away for them in the kitchen all day, with both sides convinced the other could've made more of an effort (to cook or praise the home cooking).

As with most mainstream comedies in France, the acting is about as subtle as the lighting, which is to say, it just about floods everything in sight. But Lamy — probably most famous stateside as the wife of Jean Dujardin during his Oscar campaign but also a gifted comedic actress in her own right — manages to also suggest something of the psychological impact of the reasons behind her shacking up with her mother. And the unhappily unemployed 40-year-old's passive-aggressive, love-hate relationship with Carole will be recognizable for most people with siblings. Though Flamand, Lefebvre and especially Commandeur (from Lavaine’s Barbecue) are also solid, the film’s heart belongs to the female protagonists, with Balasko (The Hedgehog) a reliably warm and sunny presence as a woman who has decided that there’s more to life than kids, even if they’re moving back in 40 years after making them.

Production companies: Same Player, Pathé Productions, TF1 Films Production, Appaloosa Cinema, Scope Pictures, Chabraque et Ryoan
Cast: Alexandra Lamy, Josiane Balasko, Mathilde Seigner, Philippe Lefebvre, Jerome Commandeur, Didier Flamand, Cecile Rebboah
Director: Eric Lavaine
Screenplay: Eric Lavaine, Hector Cabello Reyes
Producers: Vincent Roget, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Francois Hernandez
Production designer: Isabelle Quillard
Costume designer: Brigitte Faur-Perdigou
Editor: Vincent Zuffranieri
Music: Fabien Cahen
Sales: Pathé

Not rated, 91 minutes