Early in Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day, Henry (Timothy Olyphant) is asking his ex-wife Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) if their kids can spend part of the titular holiday with their new stepmother (Shay Mitchell). Sandy blows her top; she cannot have them on Mother’s Day. “She can have Flag Day!” she commands. “Groundhog Day!” And dear reader, it took all of my self-control not to shout out in the screening, “Shuddup Jen, you’re giving them ideas!”
If you’re fortunate enough not to know, Mother’s Day is the third holiday-set multi-narrative rom-com from director Garry Marshall, following 2010’s Valentine’s Day and 2011’s New Year’s Eve (a template clearly inspired by Love, Actually, and if that’s not incontrovertible proof of that picture’s ultimate evil, I’m not sure what is). Those two films were insufferable, maudlin bullshit; they’re both better than this film by a factor of ten. It’s marketed as a twinkly rom-com, but it’s about as depressing as Requiem for a Dream.
Let’s start with the script, which is credited to three writers yet somehow plays like a filmed outline, still waiting for another writer to come on and do the pass where they add in the jokes. And the drama. And the human interest. It’s one of those scripts where characters say each other’s names in every line of dialogue, as if a) anyone talks like that, and b) we care (It’s not like we see Julia Roberts and think, “Oh, there’s Miranda Collins”; we think, “Oh, there’s Julia Roberts”). It’s also the kind of script that thinks its audience is so mentally deficient that even the most basic exposition must be spelled out in the clumsiest possible fashion, between characters who already know all the things they’re saying. A few of my favorite lines (you can just copy-paste into the “memorable quotes” section of IMDb):
- “There’s a reason we moved here to Georgia!”
- “I’m your sister, I live next door to you!”
- “Aren’t your parents divorced?”
- “Seems like a reasonable question for a father to ask his daughter.”
- “Mom loved karaoke, remember?”
- “I have abandonment issues!”
That last one comes from Kristin (Britt Robertson), explaining to Jesse (Kate Hudson) — who she’s apparently known for about 20 minutes — why she hasn’t married her child’s father. All you need to know about Hudson’s character – about the movie, really – is that her first line of dialogue is as follows: “I ate a whole coffee cake last night! Pilates?” Most of the movie’s press thus far has focused on Julia Roberts’ awful wig (not a good sign) but that’s about all that’s noteworthy about her performance – and they don’t even explain the stupid thing, assuming that we’ll just know that it’s a shout-out to her similar blond bob in Marshall’s Pretty Woman, or her astronaut wig in Notting Hill, or something.
Aniston probably has the largest role of the ensemble, poor soul, and is thus left out to dry most; a scene of her having a full-on meltdown in a mini-van, shouting full lines of motivational dialogue, is about as cringe-worthy a scene as you’ll see in a movie – that is, until late in the picture, when Jason Sudiekis performs a family-friendly karaoke version of “The Humpty Dance.” This is a performer of real wit and charisma, so watching him stumble through this fraudulent hellscape behind a lobotomized smile is tedious indeed. (He’s first revealed emerging from behind his wife’s gravestone, a bizarre amalgam of framing, editing, and expression that gets a bigger laugh than any of the movie’s intentional “jokes.”)
And if you’re worried that this all sounds mighty white for a movie set in Atlanta, not to worry: there’s poor Aasif Mandvi as Hudson’s husband (a doctor, of course), plus a full-figured sassy black lady, and the usual supporting turn from Marshall regular Hector Elizondo, whose unwavering devotion to the director should, by this point, qualify him for some sort of hazard pay. Mandvi is brought on as a foil to Robert Pine and the great Margot Martindale, as Hudson and Sarah Chalke’s racist/homophobic Texas parents, who are written and played with the approximate subtlety of Ma and Pa Kettle. Frankly, the most distressing thing about Mother’s Day is the sight of normally authentic actors like these being asked to mug wildly, pull faces, and generally play Keystone Kops.
Mother’s Day is Marshall’s 18th feature film, but it plays like an unpromising debut. Even on the levels of the most basic filmmaking craft, it’s stunningly incompetent: ponderous pacing, gummy camerawork, clumsy ADR, a push-button score under nearly every scene, shots that slam into each other like bumper cars, staging that’d look amateurish at a church Christmas pageant, scenes that are organized seemingly at random, and meander so far after the point is made, you’d swear someone had accidentally left the camera running. And Marshall’s primary auterist flourish seems to be the notion that there’s no scene that can’t be escaped with a zany cutaway; the best/worst is probably getting out of a scene at “Shorty’s” bar with a shot of the owner, a little person, announcing “I’m just the owner!”
Garry Marshall should, by any reasonable definition, be considered a national treasure. He developed The Odd Couple for television; he created Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, and Laverne and Shirley; he wrote for Dick Van Dyke, Lucy, and Bob Hope; he’s made numerous memorable acting appearances (including Louie, A League of Their Own, Soapdish, and his immortal turn as the casino manager in Lost in America); and his initial run of directorial efforts included The Flamingo Kid, Nothing in Common, Overboard, and Pretty Woman. And he knows he’s beloved; among the more desperate moments in Mother’s Day are his in-joke references to previous works, like when soccer coach Sudeikis tells a team member, “There’s no texting in soccer!… There’s even crying, but there’s no texting,” or when Elizondo departs a brunch meeting by telling Julia Roberts, “Oh you’re right — that is the salad fork,” and she all but winks at the audience.
But Marshall hasn’t made a good film since 1991’s Frankie and Johnny, and his filmography since has included such claptrap as Exit to Eden, The Other Sister, Raising Helen, Georgia Rule, and the aforementioned Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. These are bad films, and yet he’s somehow getting worse. Marshall is now 81 years old, and the saddest thing about Mother’s Day is that it plays like a two-hour presentation for mandatory retirement.
Mother’s Day is out today.