Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (2016)
If you can have Bad Grandpa, Bad Teacher, or even Bad Santa, why can’t you have Bad Moms as well?
I’ll tell you why. Because there are large segments of our society that still hold Motherhood up as the ideal position, the God-directed purpose and sole reason for the existence of woman. Even those who do not subscribe to the Madonna-ideal—even those who believe that women ought to have roles outside the home and careers of their own that contribute to, or wholly support their own households, still unthinkingly burden women with the expectation that they can do the job both at home and at work with their careers and at least subconsciously shame women who fall short of perfection, as the women engaged in these endeavors subject themselves to mental self-flagellation when they fall short of the ideal. A bad mom is a disgrace to her children, her sex, to the whole human race.
Or so runs the indoctrinated prejudice of the well-washed brain. In the sleeper hit of the summer, though, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore take aim at the unattainable ideal of the Super Mom with Career, and give us a trio of moms who are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore. Granted, Mila Kunis (as Amy, mother of two middle-school kids) and her posse–Kristen Bell (as Kiki, the meek stay-at-home mom who is afraid to break any “rules”) and Kathryn Hahn (as Carla, the brash single-mom who has apparently never followed any “rules”), never really do anything terribly wild or outrageous: they skip work to go to a movie in the afternoon, they go out drinking on a school night, they get plastered and go a little crazy in a supermarket at night in a hilarious romp filmed in slow motion as if it were an ultra-violent martial arts scene involving the unauthorized outpouring of vast amounts of sugary breakfast cereal. The fact is, when the moms go “bad,” they don’t go bad in any objective sense of the word, rather they merely fail to measure up to the impossible ideal set up for them by society, and by their own inner voices.
The plot of the film follows the relatively conventional comic pattern. Amy, the frustrated working mom, finds herself under constant pressure to be and do everything expected of her by her whiny children whom she carts around everywhere and will probably die if a) the daughter is not a starter on the soccer team (since that will prevent her from getting into an Ivy League school) or b) the son does not get her to do his homework for him. In the meantime, her husband, too worn out by his two meetings a day to lift a finger around the house, is engaging in a ten-month-long video porno affair online. And to top it all off, Amy works at a trendy Chicagoland “coffee company” at a three-day-a week job for which she is expected to actually work full-time for a part time salary and, at 32, is the oldest person in the company, which consists essentially of entitled millennials who spend the day playing ping-pong while she actually works.
What really causes Amy to snap, though, is the embodiment of all society’s pressures in the small despotic package of Christina Applegate, the power-hungry PTA president Gwendolyn. When she and her minions, Annie Mumola and Jada Pinkett Smith, try to enlist Amy to police the bake sale to make sure that no mother has had the audacity to bring items containing any forbidden materials (and her list forbids absolutely everything that would make anything at a bake sale taste edible), Amy snaps and refuses to serve. At the bake sale, she brings in store-bought doughnut holes, which causes Applegate to go ballistic.
In the archetypal comedy, the characters representing the “New Society” must move from bondage to freedom by overcoming the power of the blocking figures and establishing the newer, freer society in their place. Thus we know that Applegate must be brought down by Amy and her crew. The means of toppling the PTA president are clear: Amy must run against her for president and win. This being a comedy, you can probably guess what happens next.
So one knock on this movie is that it is predictable. Considering the fact that prior to this, Lucas and Moore’s most popular film was The Hangover, one might expect a far more imaginative script. But Bad Moms lacks the intricate temporal disjunctions and the totally unlooked for plot twists of The Hangover. Here, what cleverness there is in the script comes from surprisingly crude lines (from the mouths of moms!), coming mostly from Hahn, and from somewhat outrageous sight gags, one of which involves the use of Kiki in a zipped-up hoodie as a visual aid.
There are other flaws in the film as well, not the least of which is a heartfelt but preachy speech that Amy gives to the moms who come to her party about the problems women like themselves have in living up to the ideal picture of the Good Mom, and how as PTA president she will not lay those kinds of expectations on them. The other flaw is the fact that once was not enough for the Big Speech, but it has to occur again, with even more sincerity and preachiness (just in case you didn’t get the message the first time) at the PTA election. Could you run that by me again, I think the guy at the end of the aisle who texted through the first half of the movie and slept through the second half might have missed the point.
Another difficulty I had with the film is that in the end, the women are not really self-sufficient—every woman needs a man, it seems, even if it is a reformed one (as Bell gets). Amy can’t be allowed to live on her own without her loser husband. She has to have another man in her life—a subplot that really seemed beside the point to me. There are those who would argue, probably, that a film like this, with this kind of theme, ought to have been written and directed by women, not by men whose main claim to fame so far has been in presenting what other men do when they behave badly. The argument, I suppose, is that what the women do in this film is pretty much just what men would do. To some extent that’s true. Carol (Hahn) is essentially exactly what a bad dad would be—drunken, foul-mouthed, and randy, who’s pretty much given up on raising her son “right”—but the fact is she is flat out hilarious in the role. Her hysterical one-liners and throwaways pretty much steal the movie. But the other actors are well-cast and sympathetic as well: Bell as Kiki is perfect as the submissive milquetoast, ironically playing against type, as most of us know her from her role as the confident and independent Veronica Mars. Kunis is a sympathetic protagonist, by turns frustrated, angry and depressed in the same way we are in following her story. As for Applegate, her Gwendolyn may be the most vile antagonist to the sisterhood since the Wicked Witch of the West, but in the end she’s not such a one-sided villain after all—a touch that helps keep things from absolute predictability.
I’ll give this one three Tennysons: the movie is predictable largely because it is a comedy, but it is hilarious, thanks in large part to Hahn’s Carol. And there is a significant social commentary here, though it might have been more subtly expressed. I think you ought to see it. But yes, keep in mind that it is rated R, and yes, there are reasons for that.