Bad Moms is a movie to root for. Starring a hugely talented, nearly all-female cast, aimed squarely at a neglected demographic, and addressing issues that surely resonate with audiences, you want so, so badly for it succeed.
It brings me no great pleasure to report that, apart from a few big laughs, it does not.
Let me say, well in advance: Bad Moms has riotous moments. In particular, perpetual bit player Kathryn Hahn gets a chance to steal every scene she’s in, and in fact all three leads are terrific. Christina Applegate makes the most of a single-note part, too. I have absolutely no doubt that the issues it touches on — including, but not limited to, exasperating over-work in an unpaid economy, ungrateful but still-loved families, judgment from other moms, shitty and self-absorbed bosses two decades younger in a hipster economy, feminine solidarity, the desire to break free and enjoy life, and much more — will resonate with a lot of folks. These are the good parts.
I’ll get to the bad parts in a moment. First, the narrative. In hasty exposition, we meet Amy (the impossibly beautiful Mila Kunis, who for some reason the film has decided is only so-so in the looks department), a do-it-all mom run ragged by her obligations. She works at the kind of coffee company lorded over by do-nothing millenials who’d rather play ping-pong, while simultaneously doing her son’s homework, helping her over-achieving 12-year-old daughter score extra-curriculars for eventual Ivy League enrollment, and picking up after her under-achieving man-child of a husband, who talks like he just strolled out of a parody of stoner comedies. In other words, she is a type.
The narrative crux of Bad Moms hinges on a singularly bad day. Everything goes wrong, and when she dutifully shows up at the remarkably man-free PTA meeting, she’s had enough. Gwendolyn (Applegate) is the fascist mom in town, running the meeting and the school, and Amy tells her she’s out — these women have luxuries Amy does not, and she has better shit to do than screw around with her kids’ lives as a hobby. She’s out.
It’s a scene aimed straight at the many viewers who have felt similarly, a sort of Network-esque cri de couer for moms everywhere. The first but not the last, unfortunately, in a movie that feels nothing’s worth saying if it’s not worth saying twice.
Retiring to a bar for a much-needed drink, Amy meets Carla (Hahn), the Slut, and Kiki (Kristen Bell), the Prude. They form a fast friendship, decide that momship is fucked, and promptly take out their rage on the hapless clerks of a grocery store. The scene is shot in digital slo-mo, what would’ve been called “MTV-ready” a generation ago. It’s fitfully amusing.
Through a variety of plot manipulations, their pact to be Bad Moms, own up to the difficulty of child-rearing, and be all real and shit leads Amy to run for PTA president to displace the tyrannical Gwendolyn. (A truly ironic notion, given that this is buying into the exact system that oppresses them, but the film has no time for such nuances.) In between, Amy ditches her shitty husband, starts a romance with remarkably wooden widower Jessie (Jay Hernandez), and generally tries to “own” her life. Carla gets drunk and kisses girls. Kiki tells off her barely-seen stereotype of a disapproving spouse and discovers she enjoys doing nitrous. It all ends with an inspirational speech about the freedom to be imperfect, as Amy comes to helm the PTA, before flying off on a private jet with her erstwhile frenemey.
This is all mixed in with some rather sweet reflections on life balance, a real love of family, and an admirable commitment to gags. I don’t want to be misunderstood here: Bad Moms is often very funny, despite its faults. Kunis, Hahn, and Bell are immensely talented comedic performers.
But the bad parts include sit-com plotting, beat-waiting for a laugh, disinterested direction, overuse of slo-mo gags, and the presumption that the word “cock” is funny in and of itself, when uttered by a lady person. Far worse, the notion that the primary problem with today’s society is how women treat each other, rather than the way society treats women, and the primary solution is a rising self-consciousness that urges women to change their behavior and their relations.
It would be unreasonable to ask a silly, gag-filled comedy to tear down the patriarchy, but one might hope it didn’t traffic in its tropes, in a desperate attempt to prove that Ladies Can Also Be Vulgar(TM). One might also hope it didn’t lamely recycle jokes from other movies, retro-fitted for new demographics in clear cash-grabs.
The blame for this can be laid at the feet of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, its extremely dude-bro writers and directors. Known primarily for the strikingly similar, gender-reversed Hangover movies, the duo specializes in an uneasy blend of faux-scandalous farce and faux-earnest schmaltz. The second is supposed to balance out the first, but the truth is neither really work. Why anyone thought these two men would deliver an honest, comedic paean to the travails of over-taxed moms is beyond me.
It is extremely telling that the film’s best moment comes during the credits. Instead of spittakes and post-Apatow improv shenanigans, we get the female leads talking with their actual moms. It’s truer than anything that preceded it, and makes you consider what a movie like this would look like if the dudes weren’t there, shaping it.
I am not the target audience for this film, but I really wanted to like it. With all apologies to the many moms who will gladly skip the latest kid favorite or superhero catastrophe to consume Bad Moms and its halting moments of laugh-out-loud goofballery and what passes for truth-telling in a Hollywood that can’t imagine women telling their own stories, I’m guessing it could be much better.