'Bringing Up Bobby': Janssen Misses the Directorial Mark
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Written and directed by actress Famke Janssen ("X-Men," "Rounders"), "Bringing Up Bobby" is clearly a labor of love. At the same time, that doesn't mean you have to love it. A story of family ties, good times and bad parenting, "Bringing Up Bobby" stars Milla Jovovich ("Resident Evil," "Stone") as Olive, a single mom whose long-term plans consist mostly of short-term cons. Her son, Bobby (Spencer List), is her traveling aide and accomplice, whether shoplifting dinner or boosting cars. Olive and Bobby clearly love each other, but it's hard to approve of Olive's free-spirited ways and independent single-woman status when she's perpetually engaging in either collateral child endangerment or active neglect. Bobby and Olive con and cruise around the heartland, calling each other Bonnie and Clyde, with her peering out insouciantly from under her Dunaway-styled beret. You'd think they'd recall how all of that ended ...
Shot in a lightning-quick 22 days in Oklahoma, "Bringing Up Bobby" is a mixed mélange of material, at best. Jovovich chooses to play Olive with a slapstick Slavic accent on loan from Natasha Fatale, spouting mangled broken English like "Down into hatch" when making a toast and misquoting much-loved films like "Gone With the Wind." Both Jovovich and Janssen were immigrants to America (from the Ukraine and the Netherlands, respectively), and while Olive's broken and broad diction may be within the realm of the real, it isn't especially realistic. As for List, like many child actors, he often feels like some invisible dial's been turned too far toward the top end of its range.
Janssen deserves some credit for the film facing up to the fact that Bobby and Olive's high jinks cannot go on forever, and they don't: Bobby winds up in the care of a businessman (Bill Pullman) and his wife (Marcia Cross), both of them reeling from the loss of their own son a few years ago. The change from road-trip con comedy to high-drama soap opera is jarring, but ultimately to the film's benefit. Pullman is, as ever, excellent, and Cross gets opportunities to act far beyond the ones her decades-long work in prime-time TV have afforded her. As for Jovovich, all question of her dubious accent aside, it's a pleasure to see her in something, anything other than her husband Paul W.S. Anderson's action films ("Resident Evil," "The Three Musketeers"), which primarily require her to wear tight outfits and dodge implements of death in slow-motion.
Janssen clearly hired a good technical crew -- the editor is Job ter Burg, who's previously worked with Paul Verhoeven -- and the film is shot attractively enough, even if the production design makes us wonder if the film is set in the '70s, the '80s or today. (The last turns out to be correct, even if it does take a while to get there.) Mixing con-artistry comedy out of "Paper Moon" with parental pathos and big feelings, "Bringing Up Bobby" is hardly an auspicious debut for Janssen as a director, but, at the same time, there's enough there to suggest that a next attempt would be worthy of investigation thanks to her skill as a director, and not just because of her reputation as an actress.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.