Bad Moms seems like exactly the kind of strained mirth that you know/dread will end with zany outtakes and bloopers, but it goes in a different, stranger direction. The end credits are accompanied not by blown lines and character breaks, but a montage of the film’s six top performers, chatting away with their mothers about what kind of kids they were, and what kind of moms they had. It’s sort of jarring, an immediate leap out of anything resembling narrative into something you’d expect to see as a Blu-ray special feature. But as they continue – particularly around the time Christina Applegate is recalling how her mom took her, at nine years old, to see the notorious Al Pacino S&M thriller Cruising – it becomes clear that this little sequence, as peculiar as it is, has more warmth, charm, and truth than anything that’s come before it. And it’s easy to tell why: unlike the previous 90 or so minutes, these are stories about women being told by women.
This has become a bit of a problem in the five years since Bridesmaids became the big test case for female-fronted mainstream comedy; that film’s success made it clear that audiences would turn out for adult-themed comedies about women, but green-lighting execs also seemed to take away that those pictures still had to have a man in the director’s chair. So we ended up with Bridesmaids’ Paul Feig directing The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters; Jason Moore helming Pitch Perfect and Sisters; Judd Apatow directing Trainwreck; Christian Ditter directing How to Be Single; and so on. Many of them (okay, two of them) are fine directors, and deserve kudos for creating opportunities for female actors and (often) writers. But it chills the bone to imagine all the women who can’t get their movies made, while Jon Lucas and Scott Moore – whose credits include Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Change-Up, the first Hangover, and the loathsome TV series Mixology – get a healthy budget, a four-star cast, and the chance to not only write but direct a film that aims to give voice to overworked moms the world over. Yes, really.
Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn are the mothers of the depressingly boilerplate title (I’m thankful for a lot of what Bad Santa gave us, but not that rubber-stamp titling rubric), and as you’ve probably gathered from the trailers and said title, they play a trio of (hot, of course) suburban mothers who’ve finally had enough of the exhausting rituals of perfect-momming, and lash back with drinking, screwing, and general hell-raising. The image of drunken soccer moms slo-mo partying to an R&B jam is, apparently, both Lucas and Moore’s guiding principle and sole stylistic trick; they trot it twice, and you get the feeling they’d have just done an entire movie of that, if movies didn’t require “stories” and “conflict.” Both are provided by Applegate, who plays the PTA-president super-mom that locks horns with Kunis’s lead, turning the bulk of the movie into a grown-up Mean Girls, with all the originality that description infers.
In all candor, there are laughs here and there in Bad Moms – but they have less to do with the witless dialogue (this is yet another movie that thinks there’s nothing funnier than a forty-plus woman saying “cock”) and arrhythmic pacing (they keep holding for guffaws that aren’t there, like a TV show waiting for its laugh track) than the inherent gifts and unflappable comic timing of its performers. And thanks to them, there’s about twenty minutes in the middle where the picture almost works, when the characters have been established, the relationships between the focal trio and their nemesis have been defined, and we get to enjoy the Hahn’s cheerful vulgarity, Bell’s mousy charm, and Kunis’s boundless likability. But even then, they’re playing beats that’ve been done to death – none more so than the scene where Bell and Hahn rip into Kunis’s un-sexy “mom bra,” a scene Bell herself played the other side of back in April’s The Boss (a scene not just in both movies, but in the trailers to both movies).
Still, if Lucas and Moore had stuck to that playbook, to the kind of easy raunch they’ve made their name on, Bad Moms might not be so insufferable. But somebody told them they also needed to make it a sweet romance, so we’ve got a dull-as-dishwater courtship between Kunis and Jay Hernandez that’s about as jarring as the romantic interludes in Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates . And then, of course, Kunis must be punished for having fun, so her daughter has to call her selfish and head off to live with dad, as sad music plays (the filmmakers have no sense of how to marshal tonal shifts, so they just slather Christopher Lennertz’s jewelry-commercial score under everything and hope for the best). And then, swear to God, they play a sad ballad as Kunis mopes through her empty house and sobs in the hallway. What is this bullshit?
You see, they couldn’t just make a dumb comedy about suburban moms cutting loose – they somehow thought themselves capable of crafting a faux-inspirational story of motherly affirmation. (What if these moms – and just hear me out on this – aren’t really bad after all?) It’s both embarrassingly clumsy and weirdly retrograde, operating within a worldview that starts with the presumption that mothers are solely responsible for the care of their children; about the only man we see parenting is Hernandez’s character, a widower. (I guess that’s what it takes?) Scan the background in the climactic PTA election scene, and you’ll find like one dude there. What is this, 1971?
Anyway, by the time Kunis is giving her Big Moving Speech, concluding with rah-rah music and cheers and applause and a garbage fairy tale ending, it seems fair to say that maybe this wasn’t The Hangover Guys’ story to tell. Or, as wise soul Mere Smith put it on the Twitter (maybe about this movie, maybe about any number of others): “Dear Male Directors, Please practice these mouth sounds: ‘Maybe a woman should do this project.’”
Bad Moms is rotten to its core, but it puts this viewer in the strange spot of rooting for its commercial success; we’re still weirdly touch-and-go on these things, at a point where every one of these movies seems a referendum (particularly after Ghostbusters’ just-okay performance). So you want a movie with this cast and this target audience to do well. Just maybe not this particular movie.
Bad Moms is out Friday.