In a debut fraught with problems, actress turned writer/director Famke Janssen’s troublesome Bringing Up Bobby plays on everything from melodrama to the break up of a family, the end result of which leaves very little to be thankful for.
In a story said to be inspired by Janssen’s own experiences arriving in the U.S., her film tells the story of Olive (Milla Jovovich), a recent immigrant from Ukraine, and her son Bobby. To make ends meet, Olive uses her skills as a con artist to get her and Bobby everything they need, as well as some they things they just want.
The relationship between this mother and son should be one that is easy to capture, as family is a universally recognised bond. However, the indulgent and tactile nature of this relationship is more disturbing than endearing. Olive dotes on her son, physically as well as emotionally, in a way that borders almost on inappropriate, with Bobby’s duties zipping up his mother’s unmentionables on her way out the door making it all the more questionable. Never mind the fact that Bobby (an eleven year old delinquent) is left alone to make prank calls whilst his mother cons a church group, Olive’s parenting leaves very little sympathy for this character throughout.
Unsurprisingly, after coming up against a surreally intense Christian neighbour, Olive’s conning days seem over as she is taken away to serve time in prison. In a particularly obvious plot contrivance, Bobby is taken in by rich businessman Kent (Bill Pullman), who he meets after being knocked down by his car. Eight months later, Olive is released and so begins a predictable and overlong journey for Olive to realise that her lifestyle is not one suitable for bringing up a child.
The biggest issue of Bringing Up Bobby, of which there are many, is Janssen’s tendency to ramp up the melodrama of the story. Scenes in which Olive and Bobby are tearfully separated, set to earnest soundtrack, are predictable and rather shallow, as are the attempts to gain sympathy for Kent and his wife Mary (played by Marcia Ross). The script forces the film down into attempting to moralise the behavior of the characters, as desperate individuals trying to do the best they can. This could work if it weren’t for the severely unsympathetic characters, whose motivation can be seen but simply not engaged with.
With her hugely overblown accent, vintage clothing and insincere dialogue, Milla Jovovich really had no chance in making this character anything more than something close to a cartoon. For the film to center on this performance does it no favours, seemingly hoping to hang on her stylish appearance which, whilst nothing to complain about, fails to distract from the emptiness of the role.
The same can be said of Bobby, played by young actor Spencer List, who seems to have been told to alternate between a brattish delinquent and a whimpering infant. His character is as difficult to warm to as his mother, with the only truly relatable part of the film coming from the dislike of Bobby from Olive’s partner in crime Walt, played convincingly by Bobby Cochrane.
Bringing Up Bobby plays like the predictable melodramas that populate cinematic history. Unfortunately, modern filmmaking has moved on from many of the tropes that are seen here, and so this film will have a lot of trouble finding an audience. It is certainly not helped by Jovovich’s caricatured performance, proving that perhaps at the moment, fighting zombies is all we should hope for from her. Famke’s first time out in the director’s chair leaves much to be improved on, despite her best efforts to instill something heartfelt in the story. Sadly, too heavy a hand reduces the film to an exaggerated drama leaving little to be enjoyed.