In “My First Mister,” two misfits — one a teenage girl, the other a far older man — strike up a most unlikely friendship. If this sounds like Ghost World to you, you wouldn’t be mistaken, for Christine Lahti’s feature directorial debut plays like a watered-down variation–that is, until the final third, when the film not only deviates but flat out derails.
The teenage girl is Jennifer (Leelee Sobieski), a.k.a. “J,” who outwardly expresses her distaste for the world at large by hiding behind a black-clad, white-faced, multi-pierced Goth exterior. While on the hunt for a job, J meets sad sack Randall (Albert Brooks), the pushing-50 manager of a men’s fine clothing store, who takes a chance on her as a stock room clerk. The pair’s initial dislike and distrust proves to be short-lived, for those feelings gradually melt away as J and the newly-nicknamed “R” spend more time at and away from the workplace. Such a friendship between polar opposites would have felt awfully contrived were it not for the performances of and chemistry between Sobieski and Brooks; they manage to remain genuine even when everything surrounding them feels less so.
And as “My First Mister” progresses, those surroundings become too conventional and contrived for Sobieski and Brooks to make the film work. In the final stretch Lahti and writer Jill Franklyn engage in a trick even more unforgivable than the indulgent, “Ally McBeal”-ish fantasy visuals that mar the opening passages: manipulative schmaltz. It’s as if Lahti and Franklyn didn’t have enough faith in J and R’s shared loneliness, nor Sobieski and Brooks’ natural and quietly affecting rapport, to elicit a strong emotional response from the audience, so deadly secrets and heretofore undiscovered relatives are uneasily forced into the picture. In a sense, though, the calculated sappiness _does_ succeed in provoking a heightened reaction–but resentment and disgust is surely not what they had in mind.