Mother’s Day was first popularized in 1908 by Anna Jarvis, whose own mother had dedicated her life to pacifism in the Civil War era. Jarvis would spend the rest of her life fighting, sometimes literally, the organizations that saw in the holiday a perfect marketing hook on which to hang sales of flowers, greeting cards and expensive jewelry. She died broke in a sanitarium in 1948, seven decades before Garry Marshall could stage a feature-length celebration of the holiday revolving around Julia Roberts hawking color-changing mood necklaces on TV.
Marshall’s Mother’s Day is the third in his series of holiday hooplas, with him having already sacrificed Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve. Like those other films, this new one stuffs a handful of ham-handed stories into two hours (though the volume of stories is, blessedly, not quite as super-sized). Here a parade of suburban Atlanta moms and dads — all of them white and thin, and most of them wealthy — wrestle with false crises in the week leading up to Jarvis’ fabled day. The film cuts between them with little regard for dramatic buildup, and when Marshall grows weary of the humans, he just jumps back to his longtime muse Roberts, in a harshly cut red bob, as she sells jewelry like the world’s most unintentionally accurate Greek chorus.
If you are an issue of Entertainment Weekly from 1999, you will be ecstatic to learn that Roberts also shares a single scene with none other than Jennifer Aniston, here playing a frazzled divorcée whose ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) has just re-enacted Saturday Night Live‘s “Meet Your Second Wife” sketch. Aniston sets about enacting petty revenge, fretting that her two sons will swiftly forget about her like goldfish come Mother’s Day. Her lone character trait is that she rambles all her thoughts out loud. We rarely see her interacting with her sons, who seem like spoiled little sh*ts — the only thing that lures them back to her house is her throwing a lavish, expensive party.
The other mom-com storylines fare only mildly better at centering their conflicts around parental relationships, which is like saying a Fast and Furious film includes a single car chase. A bartender and aspiring comic (played with disarming charm by Jack Whitehall) feels flummoxed by his long-time girlfriend’s (Britt Robertson) refusal to marry him, despite the fact that they’re raising a child together. A bearded widower father (Jason Sudeikis) is still mourning the death of his military wife (Jennifer Garner), and we know he’s still mourning because we must watch a karaoke home video where she purrs “This is for you” into the camera as the soundtrack swells with crocodile tears.
And then two sisters (Kate Hudson and Sarah Chalke) struggle with how to reveal to their ultra-conservative, openly xenophobic mother (Margot Martindale) that they have started families, respectively, with an Indian man (Aasif Mandvi) and a woman (Cameron Esposito). Look at those five names again: These are incredibly gifted performers. Having them all together should have been a burst of fresh lemonade in the middle of this sour mess, and yet the film finds a way to steer them into disaster like Martindale’s RV (yes, she is literal trailer-trash).
The resolution of that particular number comes when the mom meets the Indian mother-in-law (Anoush NeVart), who comforts her by laughing at her racist jokes and proving to be just as obsessed with commercialism and Americana as she is. This character is a toxic reminder that Hollywood is not yet ready to move beyond its dark ages, and any four of the movie’s credited screenwriters — or, y’know, anyone who had any power on this set at all — could have prevented her from seeing the final cut if they possessed an ounce of integrity or self-awareness.
It’s hard to convey what a deeply, deeply cynical film this is. Mother’s Day wears its cynicism not only in its philosophy toward parenthood — make someone feel loved by spending lavishly on them — and not only in the belief that selling a film to women is akin to selling them jewelry. It’s also evident in the film’s very construction: the harsh lighting that makes everyone look Photoshopped, and the godawful editing that holds every punchline several seconds too long. Some sequences are cut together in a way where you’re not sure where the characters are standing or who they’re talking to. Others end with a sudden shot of a fat woman struggling to get out of a chair, or a little person simply standing in place, and we’re led to believe that is supposed to be the scene-capping joke.
Once upon a time, Marshall was the king of women-centric films (Runaway Bride, The Princess Diaries). But the culture has left him behind, which is why he’s still dropping Pretty Woman references in his movies 26 years later. He has little else of substance to offer: not to moms who might remember his golden years, and not to the rest of us. One of Mother’s Day‘s closing scenes is a marriage proposal on the Home Shopping Network, which couldn’t be a more savage indictment of Marshall’s worldview if Tina Fey had included it in her 30 Rock parody of his movies. We must honor our mothers by keeping them far, far away from garbage like this. Anna Jarvis already lost her war.