Jon Rubin (Robert De Niro) is an aspiring film maker with artistic pretentions, although the only work he can find is making porno movies for a sleazy producer (Allen Garfield). Rubin has his own ideas for "peep art", where he films unwary apartment dwellers, but when this doesn't work out, he turns to a more radical way of living his life.
Written by director Brian De Palma, Hi, Mom! was the follow up to the cult hit Greetings, and features a similar mix of offbeat comedy sketches and counterculture politics. Very much of its time, the film is infused with the spirit of pro-sexual liberation, anti-establishment, anti-mass media feelings of the youth of the day, but it has more guts than you might expect from its light-hearted opening half hour.
De Niro didn't really do much more comedy until years after this effort, and you can see why: he comes across as insincere and slightly awkward in the more humorous scenes, but when called upon to be threatening, his serious talent emrges. Not that Hi, Mom! has much in common with Meet the Parents or Analyse This - it's closer to a live action version of a Robert Crumb comic strip.
De Palma's interest in the voyeurism of cinema is apparent, as we frequently see things from an obvious camera's point of view: montages of Rubin's hidden camera footage, or the black and white televison documentary spoofs, for example. Rubin's intent is to seduce an oblivious woman, Judy (Jennifer Salt) on film for his porno movie, but things don't go to plan when she is too keen to get on with it, and he erroneously believes he has everything set up to perfection. The result of this generates one of the few genuinely funny moments.
But it's the TV documentary footage that becomes rivetting. They start with a few vox pops of radicals asking men in the street if they know what it's like to be black; a heated argument is undercut by a (staged) shooting in the background. Then the really fascinating part: a production of "Be Black, Baby" where the radical black acting troupe in whiteface first humiliate a group of white, middle class theatre-goers by feeding them soul food and painting their faces, then end up terrorising them, all in the name of making them see what it's like to be African-American. If you think this bit is shocking, wait until you hear the reactions of the audience when it's over!
Although it tries to top this section with more subversive scenes of a (very limited) revolution and Rubin failing to settle down with Judy, there's a certain ironic distance in their presentation because, the "Be Black, Baby" sequence apart, De Palma won't let you forget you're watching a film. Hi, Mom! is pretty much a relic now, but worth seeing as De Palma never really returned to his radical roots. Makes you wonder what he would have come up with if he'd continued in this vein. Bonfire of the Vanities?
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.