Sunday, August 7, 2016

"Bad Moms"

 3 / 5 

First things first: Bad Moms is funny.  Sometimes, it's very funny, and sometimes just mildly amusing, but even when it veers into maudlin, sentimental territory, Bad Moms knows that its first job is to make us laugh, and it does that job well.

Its cast is all very good, with Mila Kunis offering a stark reminder, after the missteps of Oz: The Great and Powerful and Jupiter Ascending, that she got her start in comedy; Kathryn Hahn delivering the funniest performance of the year; and Kristen Bell proving that playing the sidekick has its advantages.

But then there's this odd undercurrent.  This is a movie written and directed by men, and even though it boasts a phenomenal cast of fearless women in all of the leading roles, there's something odd about its underlying message.

Bad Moms posits that women can only be truly free when they are wild, boozy and slutty, that a woman who enjoys being a mom is lying to herself, and that the ones who try to "have it all" (meaning they work outside the home) are setting themselves up for disaster.

Women are at their best, Bad Moms at least sort of thinks, when they go to movies in the afternoon, have extra liquor during long brunches, and wander aimlessly around luxury stores, dreaming of a life they hope they'll have one day.

Kunis kicks things off with a voiceover narration that is used as voiceover narrations so frequently are: as a crutch to give us a quick introduction to the main character, whose disembodied voice will not be heard again.  In this five-minutes-and-we're-done lead-in, we learn that Kunis's Chicago-suburbs mom Amy married at 20, had three kids and feels her life has become too harried, too hectic, too impossible to juggle.  She works at a hipster-trendy coffee company where, at 32, she's the senior citizen among her co-workers, which include her completely oblivious boss (Clark Duke).

Her two kids seem to despise her, which is what young teenagers are supposed to do, after all, and their school is controlled by the Mean Moms of the bunch, the PTA president (Christina Applegate) and her two hangers-on (Jada Pinkett-Smith and Annie Mumolo, both horribly underused).  Indeed, there are long stretches where Bad Moms appears to be the continuing story of the Mean Girls after they finished high school, got married and grew up.

After a particularly disastrous day made no better by discovering her husband masturbating to live-chat porn, Amy pulls herself together just enough to attend one of the school's endless PTA meetings, where she has a mini-meltdown and leaves to spend some time at a local bar, which seems to be placed unusually close to a school.

In the bar, she meets two moms she has never spoken to before, the blowsy broad Carla (Hahn) and the demure Kiki (Bell).  They become fast friends, because amid the many extras who fill the scenes of PTA meetings, there appear to be only two kinds of moms: "Good" ones who will sacrifice anything to help their child get ahead, and "bad" ones, who just sort of sit on the sidelines and leave their kids' baseball games after an hour.

Carla is a bad mom, and she knows it.  Kiki just wants to be whatever kind of mom is going to win her some much-needed friends who can take her away from her disturbingly controlling husband.  Amy's right down the middle.  She's been too good for too long ... now she wants to be bad.

The trio visit the grocery store and mix their own drinks right there in the aisles. They eat cereal from the boxes and they perform acts of minor vandalism and act like untamed animals because they're letting their hair down.  It's positioned as the comic highlight of the movie, but is one of the film's biggest breaks from reality and least successful moments.

After this attempt to be The Hangover with women (only logical, since the movie was written by the writers of The Hangover), they start recovering their wits and realizing that they want a combination of less-stressed lives with more recognition.  They want, in a nutshell, to be seen as people -- so, using the same methods as their most unruly toddlers, they decide they have to act out to do it.

They visit a downtown bar and practice their slut-moves.  They talk with each other about graphic sexual encounters. They throw a party for all the other moms to get them drunk and high and having such a great time they'll elect Amy the next PTA president.  Martha Stewart even gets into the act, showing up in the movie just long enough to reveal that she starts her day off with six lingonberry extract Jell-O vodka shots.

And it is undeniably funny, made funnier by the way its trio of lead actresses commit themselves to their performances and to their characters.  If there's one thing Bad Moms excels at, it's creating distinctive characters for its performers; the superhero movies could learn something from this.

But, wait.  Look closer.

Does the movie suggests that the best way for a woman to let loose is to start her day with liquor?  Or that her true personality shines through when she ditches the kinds of dresses "that Mrs. Doubtfire would wear"?  There's an uncomfortable double-standard going on here, especially when one of the movie's Bad Moms compliments the one "hot dad" for the way he dresses casually.

Yeah, could be I'm just too sensitive, but these undercurrents bothered me in Bad Moms, much the same way that they bothered me about the shrewd, funny Trainwreck, another movie that suggests that the best way a woman can express herself is to show off her sexual side and drink prodigious amounts of alcohol.

For a while I didn't think the movie was going to recover.  Amid its laughs, it was saying that there are only helicopter moms and drunkard moms, and if you weren't one or the other, you had to become one or the other, and that the best, true path to salvation was for the helicopter mom to become a sloppy drunk.

I don't believe that, and I don't think Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell believe that, so I was confused about why they would agree to be in this movie.  It is, on one level, a harmless comedy, but it also works hard to weave in a deeper level, one in which it wants to say something about the intrinsic worth and self-sufficiency of women who choose to work and have a family.  (It says absolutely nothing about family men who choose to work; after all, they're doing what they're supposed to do.)

Despite those reservations, though, and they're big ones, Bad Moms is so full of good cheer, anchored by Kunis, Kuhn, Bell and, unexpectedly, Applegate's single-mindedly bitter PTA president. Applegate is clearly having a great time playing a flat-out villain, and she brings such a broad, cartoony fun to the role that it's easy to see how much inspiration Bad Moms takes from Mean Girls, which is not a slight toward either film.  There are times in Bad Moms that made me think that this is how Regina George and her posse would have turned out.

Bad Moms does finally set much of its wobbly record straight -- that these women were letting off steam and were never really endangering their families.  And it expands the definition of the title from moms behaving badly to those moms who just need help figuring it out, who imagine themselves as bad but aren't.

It's a funny, flawed movie, one that's finally fulfilling -- and legitimately earns the goodwill it generates from its audience, cheerily asking them to stick around for one of the best end-credits sequences yet, in which the actresses and their moms recall childhood.  It's got one of the movie's funniest lines, involving Al Pacino and his notorious 1980 movie Cruising.  That's the kind of bad-momming that's really memorable.

Viewed Aug. 6, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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