‘Bad Moms’ Is A Not-So-Daring Comedy That Doubles As A Powerful Contraceptive

When you release a movie called Bad Moms, you’ve declared a connection to an entire sub-genre of “Bad” films. Bad Santa, Bad Teacher, Bad Grandpa (Dirty Grandpa), Bad Lieutenant, Bad Boys, Bad Girls, Badlands, Superbad, Very Bad Things — etc. That means, at the very least, you’ve taken an unspoken pledge to depict some bad behavior. And yet about the most “bad” thing Mila Kunis’ character does in Bad Moms is spill food on herself. This makes Bad Moms at best dull and at worst offensive. I mean, what should we make of the fact that a “bad” Santa, according to Hollywood, commits armed robbery, adultery, sodomy, identity theft, and child abuse, while a “bad” mom swears and is sometimes late to soccer practice?

Okay, let’s say for the sake of argument that it’s unfair to compare Bad Moms to any other films with “Bad” in the title. On these terms, it’s just trite and saccharine, somehow both not believable and depressingly mundane, especially for those of us who don’t have kids but someday want to. Bad Moms was clearly intended to hit home for parents, judging by the packed screening audience of moms, who seemed to have been bussed in for that purpose. They seemed to be having a great time. “Can you believe we’re about to see a movie that isn’t animated?” one behind me kept saying to anyone who would listen, just before the movie started. I concede, reality can be trite too.

Look, I got friends with kids, lots of them. It’s not that us singles can never be interested in your new-parent gripes. It’s just that it’s easier when they aren’t the same gripes we’ve heard 12 trillion times already. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Mila Kunis’ character, Amy, is overworked and underpaid, her children are overscheduled and undergrateful, the other moms are judgy and competitive, and dealing with her husband is almost like dealing with another child. (She actually spells this out in a voiceover, as if we couldn’t be trusted to understand the world’s oldest sitcom plot point without the hand holding.) Also, the schools are banning peanut butter now! Have you seen this? Have you heard about this? Amy’s marriage has become largely sexless, and her husband has compensated with a virtual relationship with some kind of internet cam model that’s gone on for 10 months. The twist in Bad Moms is that they actually show the naked cam model, and her “giant bush.”

Which I suppose is better than if this had been a PG-13 movie, barely, but the nudity and swears in Bad Moms are kind of like the cool-guy abstinence pastor with earrings and spiky hair — same hack message, now with fake edge. (In fact, Moms’ Night Out, “a faith-based” version of this premise actually beat Bad Moms to the punch, and Bad Moms feels exactly like a secular remake of a Christian movie.)

Bad Moms manages to be both crushingly banal and entirely artificial. Like in the very first scene, where we’re treated to the old “jaunty musical montage spices up the suburban routine” scene, where Amy runs boring errands and when she drops her kids off to school, she pulls a giant papier-mâché bust of Richard Nixon out of the trunk and tells her son “Don’t forget your project!”

Is the giant Nixon bust an absurdist joke or are we supposed to accept it? It doesn’t work either way. Also, there is no music yet recorded that will make me interested in watching well-to-do white people do chores.

Anyway, Amy eventually throws out her cad husband, starts hanging out with Carla, the slutty single mom played by Kathryn Hahn, and Kiki, a mousy mom played by Kristen Bell, drives around in her soon-to-be ex’s muscle car (his “special car”), and generally starts bringing a whole new ‘tude to PTA meetings. Who cares? It’s only motherhood, she seems to say, clearly the movie’s message, though it’s severely undercut by the movie’s pathological need to reiterate how much the moms love their kids and would do anything for them and would “literally die for them” and blah blah blah every 27 seconds or so. I could accept it calling itself Bad Moms if I could find any taboo it wasn’t deathly afraid of breaking.

Also, when I look at my overeducated parent friends who kill themselves trying to barely squeak into the middle class, this movie family where the mom works part time and the dad is lazy and they still can afford a nice big suburban house and a third car just for funsies feels borderline offensive.

But it’s probably just a leftover plot point from older movies, made back when it actually was that easy to be middle class. You know the old “slow-motion cool-guy walk” montage scene that’s in every comedy (see the banner image from Moms’ Night Out)? Bad Moms has like three of those. The scene where the heroine auditions various outfits while her friends nod or shake their head that’s in every rom-com? Yep, got that too. This movie could be called “Cutting Room Floor.” I’d love to see a movie that was actually about some genuine mom worries, but Bad Moms just feels like writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (best known for writing The Hangover) pandered to every sitcom and Hallmark ad conception of motherhood. What do moms want?! Some appreciation from their kids! To be able to see movies about shirtless guys with their friends and occasionally eat a nice breakfast alone! Hardest job in the world, you know! Oh God, we know, we knowwwwwww.

I feel worst for Hahn, who actually managed to get some belly laughs out of me, despite the thankless role and corny script. She is a supreme talent and, in all honesty, breathing life into this non-story is an achievement on par with any of the last 10 Best Actress winners. There’s a scene where Carla is using Kiki’s hoodie to demonstrate how to treat an uncircumcised penis that’s legitimately wonderful, and I wish they’d release as a separate sketch, because I could recommend it without reservations. In this scene, there’s a hint of the risqué sex comedy Lucas and Moore seem like they wanted to write instead of this pandering nonsense.

We’re at a weird moment in the film industry, where, thanks to a groundswell of support for the idea that more stories from a non-white male perspective are a good thing, a gender-swapped version of an old formula seems like a timely pitch. The industry, by and large, still doesn’t seem especially great at bankrolling female storytellers or interesting stories, so we’re in this transitional phase, where male filmmakers do their best to at least get some lady-led stories onscreen. But even this half measure makes the troglodytes squeal, and then the progressives of the world often find ourselves in the unenviable position of feeling like we have to defend female actresses’ right to make essentially the same crappy movies we’re already bored of male actors making.

Sometimes it feels worth it, like when you see those pictures of the happy little girls at the Ghostbusters premiere (putting aside for a moment the fact that the studio invited them there). I may not care about a Ghostbusters reboot either way, but the studio was going to make one anyway and at least this felt like a net positive.

And then there’s Bad Moms, which feels like two dudes using a vaguely feminist sock puppet to say things that are at best trite and at worst toxic.

When Amy delivers a grandstanding speech to her son about why she won’t be doing his homework for him any more so that he doesn’t grow up to become “another mediocre white male who thinks he’s great” (she also warns him about eventually “growing a hipster mustache to make people think you’re interesting when you’re not” and “starting a ska band” which feels like an arbitrary set of competing stereotypes bellowed by an angry granddad) you wonder if Lucas and Moore identified with this hypothetical mediocrity. Bad Moms is nothing so much as half-assed. (Also, warning your white kid away from ska in 2016 is like warning your black kid to stay away from that rambunctious devil jazz, I’m sorry I can’t let this go.)

If you compare Bad Moms to other “Bad” movies, the underlying message is that even self-described bad moms aren’t allowed to be bad. In a broader political context, that ain’t progress. In a narrower artistic one, it ain’t interesting either.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.