You know, I can’t imagine how difficult it had to be to get a movie like Bad Moms made. Studio suits and filmmakers have had it in their heads for pretty much ever that stories about hard partying and bad behavior were strictly the domain of the guys, and that women only wanted stories about special, tender friendships and romances with rugged yet chaste and sensitive men. With the success of shows like Broad City and movies like Bridesmaids and Trainwreck, that notion is thankfully starting to change, but it’s a big ship and it takes time to turn it around. So I can see a cluster of suits looking over the script for Bad Moms — a story about a trio of young mothers who get fed up with the work it takes to be “perfect parents” and start drinking, partying, driving bitchin’ Mustangs and teaching their children to fend for themselves — and saying, “Well, look, we don’t want them to get too crazy here, I know the title is Bad Moms but they can’t actually be Bad Moms…”
Maybe those suits are the reason why this movie sucks on ice. I kept wanting it to push things further. I kept finding places where it could have pushed things further: Going into the end of the first act, our heroine, Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis), learns that on top of all the shit that’s landing on her on this particular day — her husband’s having an affair, her daughter’s freaking out about soccer, her son’s barely getting through school, and her boss is a dumbass millenial who keeps piling work onto her — the family dog has vertigo. He’ll have to be carried everywhere, and since Amy’s got no time to drop him off at home, that means she’s gotta literally carry him everywhere she goes. Oh, and also, according to the doctor, it’ll be shitting uncontrollably for the next 36 hours. So, we’re gonna get some dog poop jokes out of it, right?
Nope! We just have the surreal image of Amy carrying her vertigo-stricken dog everywhere for the next couple of scenes. You know the movie you’re watching is in trouble when you say to yourself “Gee, I wish they went for the crass, obvious dog poo gag they were setting up.”
Look, nobody’s expecting our heroines to be actual Bad Moms. It’s clear from the moment Amy breaks that the reason she declares herself a “bad mom” is because she has accepted that society will judge her as a failure for not doing everything she can and more to keep her kids safe and educated and financially secure and feeling loved. It’s a society personified by the PTA president, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate). Gwendolyn is rich. Gwendolyn’s kids are in all the best classes. Gwendolyn knows that certain ingredients are supposedly harmful to children, which is why she calls emergency meetings — for which she has intricate PowerPoint presentations ready — to explain that any goods with those ingredients sold at bake sales will be banned with extreme prejudice. Yeah, Gwendolyn’s great, but the greatest thing about her is that she loves her kids more than anything, and that makes her very proud. And if you can’t live up to her standard, you’re a monster. That’s what Amy’s up against, and she’s refusing to play that game for another second because she is physically and emotionally incapable of it.
Of course, a character like Gwendolyn is fucking ridiculous, but she’s still rooted in real, specific anxieties that drive parents to be ruthless and controlling. Besides, the comedy of it demands that sort of exaggeration, right? So why doesn’t Amy’s rebellion feel equally exaggerated?
Oh, to be clear, she parties. She finds another lost soul in the mousy, timid Kiki (Kristen Bell) and a sort of mentor in the aggressive, flirtatious Carla (Kathryn Hahn), and they go to town. But nothing about it feels dangerous or memorable, especially in the wake of the guy movies it’s imitating — particularly The Hangover, I think a little bit of Stretch, too (though the thematic similarities are certainly coincidental). There isn’t even much of a feeling of escalation when Amy decides to run against Gwendolyn for PTA President, and Gwendolyn starts screwing with Amy’s kids in response. I’m going to be the guy who uses a line from one of the all-time great “guy movies” to critique a “girl movie” — for a movie that’s set in Chicago, none of these ladies seem to know anything about The Chicago Way.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? That “girl movies” can be just as bawdy, raucous, and intense as “guy movies”? To be clear, I don’t mean this in a sarcastic MRA “I refuse to review the all-female Ghostbusters” way, but for a moment, let’s assume that guys are, for whatever reason, better equipped to handle characters like The Hangover‘s Wolfpack being such irresponsible, childish assholes. In turn, let’s also assume that women — in particular, the young mothers this movie is targeting — wouldn’t be so forgiving, especially if there’s a chance that the irresponsiblity of the main characters could splash back onto their children. Now, one of the things I like about this movie is how it argues that by loosening up and not trying to be so perfect, Amy is actually able to connect with her kids better and teach them more about maturity and pride in themselves. If it’s true that women want movies with a big open heart and a strong conscience, well, Bad Moms has that in spades. It has enough that I feel like there is so much more that can be done with the concept of Amy, Kiki, and Carla rejecting the shackles of “perfect mothering” without damaging that conscience and appearing to be unfit parents. A little further still, perhaps, before it stops being funny.
Instead, it stays in a safe zone, feeding its audience generic-brand bacchanal, so confident in its potency that it includes a scene where Amy apologizes to her kids for things it feels like she shouldn’t have to apologize for. To be fair, her kids assure her that the apology isn’t too necessary, but the whole scene stinks of “Yup, we totally pushed her past the brink!” when they really didn’t, and it gets a little insulting.
Again; all of that assumes women can’t handle irresponsiblity in their heroes like men can. If you’re a woman and you think that line of reasoning is bullshit, then whether you’re a mom or not, I can’t imagine you leaving the theater without the phrase “Oh, FUCK YOU, movie” entering your mind at least once.
It is so, so tempting to blame nervous executives for this. It feels like the result of something being noted to death: “Make Amy more likable. Women don’t like shitty parents. Carla is too aggressive here, she might scare some men.” Maybe that’s the case. All the same, I’m putting at least some of the blame on writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore. They’re best known for writing the original script for The Hangover; they later wrote the Vince Vaughn/Ryan Reynolds vehicle The Change-Up before making their directorial debut with 21 & Over. Their inability to push the comedy of this movie to the edge it needs to sit on extends to the lack of effort in every other goddamn choice they make.
When Amy first meets Carla and Kiki, they get loaded at a bar, make the vow to become “bad moms,” yadda yadda yadda, and then Kiki remembers she has to go to the supermarket. Cue the montage where they drunkenly ramble through the supermarket, tearing up the aisles, scaring off the security guards, shocking everyone around them. The song they choose for this montage? “I Love It” by Charli XCX and Icona Pop. It was edgy when the TV spots for Fun Size used it, edgier when it soundtracked Hannah Horvath’s coke-fueled night out with Elijah in Season 2 of Girls. Over three years later, it’s the go-to song for any high school video tech student looking to lay a “dancey” piece over their stop-motion animation assignment. It’s a choice that should have inspired any responsible music supervisor to say “Guys. Guys. No. You’ll thank me later,” and there are at least three other moments like this in the movie. Maybe because Lucas and Moore blew their budget on played-out music, every scene feels like it was shot as cheap and simply as possible with the hope of jazzing it up on the Avid — not always a bad thing, but there’s “What’s the funniest, most budget-conscious way to get this across?” and then there’s whatever the hell Lucas and Moore were thinking.
More pressingly, though: Mila Kunis was a bright, loose presence in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and she carries that into her lead performance here as well. But by the end of The Book of Eli, she expertly charted her character’s journey from a helpless waif to a convincing post-apocalyptic warrior with a glower that could almost — ALMOST — match Denzel Goddamn Washington’s. She can be dangerous if you let her. So knowing as much, how the fuck do you waste her in a role like this, a role that’s crying out for somebody who knows how to balance a good heart with a rough edge? They let Kunis show flashes of that edge, particularly during a memorable confrontation with her daughter’s soccer coach, and she pounces on them like somebody starved her for a week. In moments like that, the film seems to jolt to life for a few glorious frames. Ultimately, though, the lack of nerve and imagination behind this movie holds Kunis back and makes Amy Mitchell just another bland, safe protagonist.
That’s what really pisses me off about this movie at the end of the day. I give Lucas and Moore all the credit in the world for trying to tell a bawdy, R-rated story about the perils of modern motherhood. Buried under the broad stereotypes this movie deals in, and the tragic lack of effort put forth, there are some refreshing observations about the unfair expectations we shoulder upon our partners and our fellow members of the community, and there’s a strong, successful effort to consider the story through the female gaze. We need a movie like this. I have friends who married early and got started on kids right away who are DYING for a movie like this. Maybe they’ll be satisfied if they see watch Bad Moms with a glass of wine after a long day, but in a week they’ll be too busy trying to live up to the Gwendolyns of this world to remember anything about it.
If you’re gonna do a Hangover for overworked and underappreciated moms, I say go hard or go home, and this movie should’ve gone the fuck home. They deserve better than “Oh yeah, it was alright.”
Bad Moms is now in theaters.