review for Bringing Up Bobby on AllMovie

Bringing Up Bobby (2011)
by Mark Deming review

Years ago, a movie-industry magazine published a gag cartoon depicting a man with a trained dog who is showing off his act to an agent: He's taught the dog to say, "What I really want to do is direct." It's common for well-known actors to show an interest in stepping behind the camera, and more than a few of them seem eager to prove that they can be taken seriously. Famke Janssen has been a model, a Bond girl, a regular in the X-Men franchise, and a bona fide sex symbol, but none of those vocations remain satisfying forever, and so Ms. Janssen has decided to take a flyer at writing and directing a movie. Based on the result, Bringing Up Bobby, she shouldn't abandon her other job just yet, but it's a comedy that generates a few genuine laughs while displaying a bit of dramatic gravitas at the same time, suggesting that she might have some real promise in the director's chair.

In Bringing Up Bobby, Milla Jovovich plays Olive, a beautiful Ukrainian expatriate and single mother who has landed in the American West. She supports herself and her ten-year-old son Bobby (Spencer List) through her efforts as a con artist and small-time crook, and after stealing a car, the pair make their way to a small town in Oklahoma, where they try to fence the vehicle to her dim-witted partner in crime Walt (Rory Cochrane). Olive and Bobby often seem more like co-conspirators than mother and son, but it's clear she loves him with all her heart and will do nearly anything for him, and he loves and depends on her. One afternoon, Bobby is playing with his skateboard when he's hit by a man driving a new Porsche. Thankfully, Bobby ends up with just a broken leg and a few scrapes, and Kent (Bill Pullman), the driver, is eager to do anything he can to help pay for the medical bills. At first, Olive is eager to use her good looks and charm to fleece Kent, but she's won over by his sincerity and the fact that he and his wife Mary (Marcia Cross) lost their own ten-year-old son a few years earlier. When the law finally catches up with Olive, Kent and Mary generously offer to take legal custody of Bobby and look after him until she is out of jail and able to prove she can be a responsible parent. Eight months later, she is released and wants to reconnect with Bobby, but while the boy obviously misses his mother, Kent and Mary have also given him a life of stability, affection, and security; as Olive struggles to go straight, circumstances suggest she might not be the best person to raise Bobby.

As two screen sex symbols with exotic names and plenty of fanboy appeal, Famke Janssen and leading lady Milla Jovovich doubtless felt like kindred spirits on the set of Bringing Up Bobby, and Jovovich (best known as Alice, the star of the Resident Evil series) certainly relishes the opportunity to play comedy and tug on some heartstrings at the same time as Olive. If Jovovich plays the funny stuff a bit broad, it fits the character and the circumstances well enough, and her interplay with Spencer List is vibrant and joyous. Jovovich's biggest handicap is Rory Cochrane, whose performance as Walt makes a character who is supposed to be a bit of a dunce seem too stupid for his own good, and while her boundless charisma wins the day, Cochrane embarrasses himself in most of his scenes. Bill Pullman slips into the aw-shucks, regular-guy (with a big bankroll) persona so well he's almost unrecognizable as Kent, and while it's almost a crime to turn Marcia Cross into a slightly dowdy blonde, she shines in what could have easily been a thankless role as Bobby's "other mom." Production designer Dina Goldman and cinematographer Guido van Gennep give the film a sharp, bright look that makes splendid use of the picture's Oklahoma City locations, and costume designer Hala Bahmet deserves kudos for Olive's impressive retro-style wardrobe. As a director and writer, Janssen runs hot and cold here -- with the exception of Cochrane, she draws fine performances from her cast, and the movie is genuinely witty without undercutting the familial drama that dominates the final act. But Janssen overdoes the eccentricity of her secondary characters, particularly their fondness for Jesus and failure to recognize a Russian accent when they hear one, and she plays the white-trash card a little too readily. And while the script succeeds more often than it fails, sometimes the pieces fall a little too easily into place, and the ending just doesn't tie up the loose ends strongly enough. But Bringing Up Bobby connects with the heart even when the intellect resists, and given Janssen's keen eye and way with performers, one hopes she can take time off from being a gorgeous movie star to give directing another try -- a lot of filmmakers have gone on to long, successful careers with weaker debuts than this.