This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.To get it out of the way, there is an inescapable element of writer-director Niclas Larsson’s debut feature Mother, Couch that feels increasingly similar to Beau is Afraid. The precise reasons about why will require being rather coy, but there is a shared interest the two have when it comes to psychological reflections on childhood trauma connected to a matriarch. However, where that film saw Ari Aster put himself and Joaquin Phoenix on trial, this one lacks any deeper exploration or self-reflection. Based on the novel Mamma i Soffa by Jerker Virdborg, it is a film that starts out strongly with a silly sense of uncertainty that is good fun only to slowly but surely bury any complexity with a bluntly wielded narrative shovel.

Though carried well by Ewan McGregor, who takes on what should have been his most ambitiously abstract film since 2005’s Stay, it is constantly in search of something more which is made so explicit that any evocative emotions slip through the fingers. Where more bold filmmakers are willing to let ambiguity hang over you about what it all means, everything here is stripped of any subtlety to have characters and scenes basically tell us what is happening in case there may have been any trouble we had in trying to piece it together for ourselves. What begins as an almost mumblecore comedy with a goofy disposition peeks down a surreal rabbit hole only to pull itself back from taking the leap. It suffocates out any intrigue by repeatedly hammering home themes and ideas that could’ve used a far lighter touch.

What is ‘Mother, Couch’ About?

The basics of this involves the troubled David (McGregor) who has discovered that his mother (Ellen Burstyn) is not willing to leave a furniture store where she has sat down on a couch. His brother Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans) and sister Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle) seem largely ambivalent if a bit annoyed about this, bringing to the forefront the vast differences in their personalities. David soon begins to grow more and more anxious as he has to get to his kid’s birthday party where his exasperated wife, played by an underutilized Lake Bell, is having to run it without him. Despite all this, he cannot get the matriarch to get up off the couch. The odd thing is that David seems like he is almost dressed to go to a funeral and, despite the humor woven throughout the film, he is deathly serious about most everything. His bafflement further clashes with the young furniture store manager Bella, played by Taylor Russell in a terrific off-key performance the film inexplicably sidelines, who just seems like she wants to talk through some of their pasts with them. When David is unable to get his mother to leave, they decide to let her stay the night in the staged furniture store and that he will sleep there as well.

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That is where any other description of the plot should firmly stop as there is a sense of discovery to preserve. This ranges from the meaning of a key that David gets from his mother which is supposed to unlock something in her home to the fact that this place where they are crashing for the night is starting to change. Without tipping off exactly what is altered, every detail of the shifting production design becomes important to understanding what is slowly taking hold of the film. Though Mother, Couch is still very much its own thing, largely in a less interesting way, the film also recalls elements of Charlie Kaufman’s work with the recent I’m Thinking of Ending Things feeling particularly relevant. This is more broadly comedic in some regards with the bickering between the siblings and their mother initially sounding rather silly. The connective tissue to these other works then begins to form the more it goes into the reasons why everyone is behaving this way rather than the precise what is going on. What we begin to see are small glimpses of David’s fears and anxieties that are all rather bluntly tied back to his relationship with his mother. Though Burstyn is wonderfully biting in bringing this to life in the brief moments that she gets, the writing doesn’t leave nearly the same mark.

‘Mother, Couch’ Offers Too Many Answers

Taylor Russell and Ewan McGregor in Mother, Couch.
Image via Chayse Irvin

The desire for stability in David’s own family and connection with his siblings who seem worlds away from him are all more important than anything that takes place in the furniture store. Even when F. Murray Abraham pops in to inject some chaos as Bella’s father, this is all window dressing for Larsson’s interest in the internal. There is a sense that he is mining out more repressed pains that David himself does not fully understand just yet, but the film is unwilling to exist in that emotional uncertainty. Some of the most enduring works are the ones that take a plunge into the personal without a life raft. Mother, Couch, on the other hand, keeps clinging to comprehensibility so firmly that it undercuts any potentially expansive moments. Even when there is a perfect ending point that would have left us a bit more adrift, the film carries on and offers answers that the experience would have benefited from withholding.

This isn’t to say the entire feature is a total waste, especially with the performances all hitting the right notes. The trouble is just that we come to understand nearly everything to such a point that there is little to actually reflect on once it reaches its close. It is an open-and-shut experience that doesn’t linger long in the mind, making you wish they’d just bought that damn couch so they could then ship themselves over to a more ambitious film along with it.

Rating: C

The Big Picture

  • Mother, Couch lacks deeper exploration and self-reflection, burying complexity with a bluntly wielded narrative shovel.
  • The film strips away subtlety, opting for characters and scenes to explicitly tell us what is happening, eliminating any intrigue.
  • While the performances hit the right notes, the overly explicit storytelling leaves little to reflect on.

Mother, Couch premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

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