It’s easy to imagine that screenwriter Hank Nelken conceived Mama’s Boy while reading a magazine article reporting on the full-nest syndrome — the increasing tendency for grownup children to continue residing with their parents. And that producers at Warner Bros., salivating over demographic trends that might translate into box-office business, pounced on the pitch. It is too depressing to contemplate the possibility that anyone had artistic ambitions for this irksome fluff that only a director’s mother could love.
Twenty-nine-year-old Jeffrey Mannus lives in neurotic symbiosis with his widowed mother Jan. The highlight of the week for each is Friday night Scrabble, until a stranger comes courting. As Jan grows increasingly attracted to Mert Rosenbloom, an unctuous motivational speaker, Jeffrey feels threatened. Resisting his own romantic entanglement with Nora Flannigan (Faris), a young singer-songwriter wannabe, Jeffrey embarks on an escalating war with Mert for his mother’s affections.
Mama’s Boy offers a few redeeming comic moments, including a ludicrously ruthless putt-putt match that reflects the fierce rivalry between Jeffrey and his mother’s lover, as well as the anti-corporate ballad that Nora warbles before repairing to a Starbucks. Mert is a fountain of platitudes; “You are the author of your own life story,” he announces, adding, “I wrote that.” And Jeff Daniels’ impersonation of this prophet of “positivity” is layered and arresting. But Diane Keaton is wasted on Jan, a role that gives her little to do but grimace or purr. Jon Heder’s tacky slacker Jeffrey, who has been phobic about cars since his father died in one, should be the engine driving the story, but he is such an utter, arrant nerd that it is incredible that anyone could stand to be with him, even for as long as this movie lasts. Nora, who gets it right when she tells Jeffrey “You are so pathetic,” dreams of abandoning southern California for success in Austin, Texas. She flops in the city 90 miles south.