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Momma's Boys

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In such films as "Secrets & Lies" (1996), "Little Voice" (1998), and "Pride & Prejudice" (2005), the wonderfully talented Brenda Blethyn has embodied various and sundry modes of pathological motherhood. Now, in the decidedly minor Australian film "Introducing the Dwights," she strikes again, this time as a fierce yet pitiable harpy with two obsessions: reigniting her failed career as a stand-up comic and shooing potential rivals -- that is, girlfriends — out of her grown-up son's life.

At its best, which is only some of the time, "Introducing the Dwights" offers a pleasing, if not exactly revelatory, slice of quirkily provincial Australian life. But after a while, the bumpy alternation between boozy family meltdowns and the son's cute, fumbling attempts at a relationship wears on the nerves. What's left, however, is a string of performances that are never less than appealing — and one, Blethyn's, that abounds in steely vigor.

Blethyn's Jean lives a life of noisy desperation with her two adult sons in a modest house in the suburbs of Sydney. The décor is dominated by mementos of a briefly successful career back in England, as if to remind her boys of all that she's given up to raise them. The older (Richard Wilson) has cerebral palsy, the result of his getting entangled in the umbilical cord. The asphyxiating effects of maternity are played out more metaphorically in the story of her younger son, Tim (Khan Chittenden), a shy, cherub-faced stud whose hormones are tempting him to consider escape from his home. The die is cast for confrontation with his mother when he meets Jill (Emma Booth), a no-nonsense working girl, who, despite her humble origins, looks as if she has just emerged from the canvas of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus."

In Blethyn's hands, Jean comes across as a master at ham-handed manipulation. When not wielding guilt like a sledgehammer, she plays on her sons' fears to keep them close. Partly out of protectiveness and, less attractively, partly from shame, she cows Mark into reclusion with references to "the SeaWorld episode," a mysterious event that followed his slipping loose from the maternal traces. When Jill steals Tim's heart, she warns him that he's merely setting himself up for a reprise of "the Samantha story," some earlier romantic disaster. Thanks, mom.

As he gets to know Jill, Tim stammers out a dark revelation: "You know, my mum, and my dad as well ... they're entertainers." (His father, played by Frankie J. Holden, hopes to strike it rich with a self-produced CD of Conway Twitty covers.) If anything makes us sympathize with Jean, it's the movie's repeated descent into the seedy nightclubs and bingo parlors where, she fondly dreams, she's laying the groundwork for renewed fame.

Billing herself as Australia's Raunchiest Homemaker, Jean lobs off-color, misanthropic stink bombs at the geriatric set ("Good evening, ladies and genitalia fondlers!") and sees signs of approaching glory in the fact that some fan has put up "a Web site in Bristol." Meanwhile, she has to haul herself out of bed at 5 every morning to sling hash in a cafeteria.

In sweet counterpoint to Jean's flailing is an affectionate but refreshingly unglamorous depiction of Tim's coming-of-age, particularly as it unfolds beneath the sheets in Jill's bedroom. Here we are about as far as we can get from the first-time-as-apotheosis view of things, woefully epitomized by "Risky Business" (1983). Instead, we get a frank and funny treatment of the negotiations, emotional and physical, required for the acquisition of a new, often challenging, skill.

One subtext throughout the film is the extent to which, culturally at least, Australia is something like a province of the United States. Jill works at Midas. Tim has a Dylan poster in his room. When she wants to sum up her joys and sorrows in song, Jean resorts to Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy" or belts out Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits." All the Americana on display underlines the sad sense that for all these characters, real life is always over the horizon, somewhere else.

Although this vague melancholy is nicely traced, in the last act, director Cherie Nowlan is far too intent on serving up searing pathos washed down, inevitably, with a tub of soaring affirmation. Home truths get spoken. Illusions are dispelled. Group hug. It's a disappointing conclusion to a movie whose early sequences seem to promise something a little less tidy and a lot more honest. (R) 105 min. S



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