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Albert Brooks is one of our most underrated - and understated - filmmakers. From his wry mock documentary on suburbia in "Real Life" (1979), to his low-key explorations of romantic angst in "Modern Romance" (1981) and marital angst in "Lost in America" (1985), to his hysterical view of the afterlife in "Defending Your Life" (1991), Brooks has made infrequent but carefully crafted social comedies that really hit home.

With "Mother," however, he genuinely matures as a director and screenwriter (with co-writer Monica Johnson), and the result is both hilarious and thoughtful in Brooks' singular, dry-wit style.But it must be said up front that the brilliant casting of Debbie Reynolds as the title character was a master stroke that helps lift the entire film to another level.

Brooks plays a middle-aged, twice-divorced hack novelist with writer's block who comes to the conclusion that he must resolve some unspoken problems with his

widowed mother before he can ever develop a successful romantic relationship - or start writing again.

So, he decides to move back home, take over his old room and, as best he can, reconstruct his youth. He does so by getting boxes from the garage and putting out all of his '60s toys, playing old rock 'n' roll on his stereo and driving his mother crazy with his finicky eating habits.

This is an invasion of her privacy, of course, and he's genuinely shocked to discover that Mom has her own full life, including a boyfriend who occasionally drops by. (During these scenes there is some sexually frank dialogue that accounts for the PG-13 rating.)

We also meet his brother, the "favored" son (Rob Morrow), who is married, has a stable job and has given his mother grandchildren. But eventually, it becomes apparent that Morrow actually has more serious problems related to his mother than does Brooks.

Throughout the film, Brooks the actor is content to play the character he always plays, a petulant, repressed adolescent whose throw-away one-liners only thinly mask his true feelings.

But Brooks the director is in no way intimidated by Reynolds, and he allows her to steal the show right and left. And she delivers a remarkable performance that is quite subtle and rich, with none of the flamboyant mannerisms we associate with "Singin' in the Rain" or "Tammy and the Bachelor" or "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" or any of the dozens of other MGM musicals and light comedies she starred in during the waning years of Hollywood's golden era.

Reynolds proves herself a genuine, wide-ranging talent who could be utilized as a wonderful character actress in the future if she is properly cast.

In Brooks' hands, she is hilarious and poignant, a calm counterpoint to her son's whiny, self-centered demands. And the chem-is-try between them is terrific.

But the most amazing aspect is the universality audiences will feel. Reynolds' character really could be anybody's mother, or more correctly, everybody's mother.

"Mother" is rated PG-13 for some vulgar language and a couple of profanities.