'Bad Moms' Is A Bad Movie
The most honest moment in Bad Moms, a film about, um, moms who are bad, comes during the end credits. Given that we have basically submitted ourselves to an hour-and-forty minutes of comedy written by two dudes best known for writing stories of man-children (The Hangover, 21 & Over), the most relatable stories come directly from the actresses' own mothers. The women appear together with their daughters discussing their own mistakes as parents. The laughter, annoyance, and eventual love displayed on screen is direct and candid without the obvious manipulation that spurs the rest of the film.
Bad Moms aims for little beyond being a crass, Screenwriting 101-blueprinted film about escaping the troubles of motherhood. The focus on putting women in a crass comedy is a welcome gesture, especially when the cast of comediennes is stacked through the roof. But it's hard not to wonder if there could be a better comedy dealing with the toils of raising a child—not necessarily less profane, but perhaps an appeal to more nuanced reliability than this Buzzfeed-style list of moments strung together.
The point of Bad Moms seems lost in the focus on the characters’ antics. The one thing that seems wrong with Mila Kunis' Amy is that she simply can't hold every single parental duty together while also holding a part-time job, especially compared to the various tiger moms lead by Christina Applegate. After catching her lazy husband cheating, Amy finally fizzles and teams up with Kathryn Hahn's slutty and irresponsible Carla and Kristen Bell's ingénue Kiki to finally escape the endless responsibilities and make the bad decisions they've always wanted to.
If Ghostbusters successfully passed with feminist colors by simply allowing women to be action heroes, drawing a message out of Bad Moms takes a little more parsing. Bad Moms never explores how or why parenting has become so tough, instead indulging in various fantasies. Brief music montages to all the recent hits set in slow motion show these women partying and causing ruckuses. Amy skips PTA meetings, refuses to cook breakfast, and heads out for nights on the town with her estrogen-driven wolfpack. While there are references to the kind of perfect parenting issues that have caused her strain—Amy's 11-year-old is more anxious about getting into an Ivy League school than she is—the issues are mostly elided in favor of a general "it's hard" platitude. Perhaps the best and more prescient laugh comes when Bell tells Amy, "You can't quit, that's for dads." Beyond Amy's own part time job, none of the other parents struggle with employment or any financial worries—not a problem in Chicago's northwest suburbs. Bad Moms finally pulls some its punches, coming to realize that while mothers need more freedom, they have to be responsible too. Everyone learns lessons and goes home.
While Ghostbusters had its numerous problems, it knew that devoting screen time to four women cracking jokes at each other in a room was itself something of a revolutionary act. Bad Moms rarely gives its characters time to breathe, and its few best moments derive from improv sessions of the cast—one particular moment where Hahn goes to great physical lengths to use a hoodie to describe sex with an uncircumcised phallus shows off the best of both women's comic control. Otherwise, the performers feel trapped by plot. Kunis, who has otherwise been playing 20-somethings since her recent break from films for her own new motherhood, ultimately has to go vanilla, while Hahn continues to perfect the bullhorn voice that has made her a surprising star. Perhaps the one revelation of the group is Bell, who has often been stuck in the role of shrill women. Here she gets to play something of a Kimmy Schmidt with a mix of naïveté in her light, low volume voice, in which curse words feel cuddly. When the filmmakers take a step back and allow these women to dominate the screen in their own way, it shows what real feminist comedy looks like.
Bad Moms opens everywhere on Thursday night.
Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.