Model turned actress Famke Janssen turns writer-director for “Bringing Up Bobby,” a lightweight drama about a gone-wrong mom who wants a better life for her going-wrong son. It has a novel setting — rural Oklahoma — a “name” cast and a potentially touching story in the “Stella Dallas/Paper Moon” vein.
But as Janssen (The “X-Men” and “Taken” franchises) should have learned, there’s more to directing than getting all the components of a picture together and placing the camera in the right spot. At some point, you have to reign in an actor, tone down the mugging and maybe get the accent that comes and goes to stick around from one scene to the next.
Milla Jovovich, another model-turned-actress, should make for a fine alter ego for the writer-director here. Still box office in the “Resident Evil” movies, with a decent track record playing wayward women, she reverts to her native Ukranian accent as Olive Younger, a con woman on the run with her eleven-year-old son, Bobby (Spencer List).
She dotes on the boy, fawning over him at every turn. We don’t actually see her teaching him “the game,” but he’s already got behavioral problems — from phone pranks and minor vandalism to petty theft. Olive steals a Cadillac from a used car dealer and resolves to set up shop in a small town she used to work. Bobby needs stability if he’s going to make it in America.
Because Olive is supposedly from Ukraine. She loves “Gone with the Wind,” even if her translations of it are a bit off.
“Weeeth God as my witness, I shall never stop eating…again!”
Bobby may be enrolled in a school, at last. But Olive, reconnecting with chop shop operator Walt (Rory Cochrane), can’t stop hustling, conning the church-going folk out of donations for the South American homeless, rent money, food, what have you. Bobby rewards her efforts by cutting up and failing in school.
“Eeef you are so smart, vy not get A instead of F?”
Olive, seemingly inspired by Borat, passes herself off as Italian. Or French. The rubes will never know the difference. This doesn’t really excuse Jovovich’s forgetful approach to the Boris and Natasha accent, but whatever.
When Bobby is hit on his skateboard by a rich developer (Bill Pullman), Olive practically smacks her lips over this juicy “mark.” But the developer and his seemingly depressed wife (Marcia Cross) could be more than Olive’s next insurance scam.
“Bringing Up Bobby” has novel touches — Walt, who dislikes the kid, lives in an abandoned caboose — scattered among its moments of forced whimsy and feigned wackiness. Olive is a terrible con artist, the Oklahomans are painted in broad, religious fanatic strokes and the cops there seem to forgive many a crime if there’s a kid involved.
Jovovich’s scenes with Cochrane have promise, but Janssen’s script can’t wait for Bobby’s next not-that-funny phone prank. Jovovich never rises above her imitation of a movie trollope performance. And taking his cue, perhaps, from his leading lady, young Spencer List never rises above ham-on-the-hoof for his performance. You may buy them as mother-son, but moments meant to play as poignant don’t deliver.
The film has a terrific setting and a fun — country-gospel mixed with slavic folk tunes — soundtrack. But Janssen only rarely finds her way to the lowdown and lowlife world of the characters, and never and brings “Bobby” up to the level of pathos of “A Mother’s Sacrifice” that she was aiming for in the first place.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for language, sexual content and some drug material
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Bill Pullman, Spencer List, Marcia Cross, Rory Cochrane
Credits: Directed by Famke Janssen, written by Famke Janssen and Cole Frates. A Montrrey Media release.
Running time: 1:35