With the exception of Phantom of the Paradise (1974), a cult-fave rock musical that some people find quite droll, director Brian De Palma has delivered only middling results when making comedies. In fact, some of his worst flops, including The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), were supposed to make people laugh. So it’s mildly interesting that several of De Palma’s earliest features are comedies, since he didn’t find his sweet spot of sexualized horror until Sisters (1973). Anyway, De Palma’s fourth feature—also his first of the ’70s—is the eclectic Hi, Mom!, which uses a loose storyline about an ambitious young filmmaker to frame sketches about art, class, race, and sex. The picture is a sequel to De Palma’s earlier film Greetings (1968), and Robert De Niro stars in both pictures as edgy New Yorker Jon Rubin.
When we meet the character in Hi, Mom!, Jon is a struggling filmmaker who uses a telescope to peer into neighbors’ windows, then persuades a skin-flick producer, Joe Banner (Allen Garfield), to fund a porno movie shot in the peeping-tom style. Later, Jon spots a cute woman named Judy Bishop (Jennifer Salt), who lives in the building across the street, and seduces her by pretending to be an insurance salesman. (Classy ulterior motive: Filming their sexual encounters without her permission for use in porn.) Also thrown into the mix is a group of black-power activists, because Jon makes grungy black-and-white verité-style short films in which the activists confront white New Yorkers with performance art challenging widespread attitudes toward African-Americans.
Stylistically, Hi, Mom! is a mess. Some scenes are played for broad humor, some are politically provocative, some are sleazy, and some are nearly frightening because of their intensity. One gets the sense that De Palma, who cowrote the picture with Charles Hirsch, either made the story up as he went along, or that the filmmakers created a laundry list of hip topics without giving much consideration to how things might (or might not) cohere. Bits of the movie are interesting (although not particularly funny), especially the man-0n-the-street vignettes that De Palma seems to have captured with hidden cameras. Yet the lack of an organizing aesthetic makes the overall experience rather boring. It doesn’t help that rock musician Eric Kaz contributed an inanely upbeat score complete with a clumsy theme song, or that De Niro is woefully out of his element. The actor didn’t find his sense of humor till much later in life, and he only really catches fire during a scene in which Jon auditions to play an abusive policeman.
Hi, Mom!: FUNKY