At least you have to give John Lucas and Scott Moore credit for gender equality—or is it blame? After making men look like numbskulls in “The Hangover” (as well in their subsequent college-age version of it, “21 and Over”), they do much the same to women in “Bad Moms,” this time taking on the directing duties as well as writing the screenplay. The message of the picture, delivered by its heroine at the end, is that everybody—including mothers—makes mistakes. True: certainly if you scan Lucas and Moore’s resume, they have; but then, so have the audiences who made some of their pictures hits. The central problem with their latest is that it panders to overstressed, underappreciated mothers—and there are plenty of them—by offering them a phony fable of empowerment, one that’s no more than a raucous, sitcom-level farce. But one expects that these calculating filmmakers are underestimating the intelligence of their target audience.
Mila Kunis leads the cast as Amy Mitchell, a young woman with two adorable but demanding kids—Jane (Oona Lawrence), a brain who’s obsessed with garnering extracurricular credits to ensure admission to a prestigious college, and Dylan (Emjay Anthony), who depends on Amy to do his homework and school projects by claiming he’s a “slow learner”—as well as a husband, Mike (David Walton), who brings in a good salary but gives her little attention and less help around the house, and a boss, Dale (Clark Duke), who’s long relied on her while underpaying her and showing her little respect. She’s also bullied by the constant demands of Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), the autocratic chair of the PTA at the kids’ school, who runs the campus like a tinhorn dictator, aided by her yes-women Stacy (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Vicky (Annie Mumolo).
Constantly harried, Amy finally has enough when she finds her husband engaging in online sex and tosses him out. Further run-ins with Gwendolyn and Dale, as well as escalating irritation with the kids’ demands, take her to a bar, where she connects with Carla (Kathryn Hahn), a single mom who speaks proudly of neglecting her son while catering to her own uncouth desires. And joining them there is Kiki (Kristen Bell), another mother from the school, who’s overwhelmed by a brood of young children and a husband, Kent (Lyle Brocato), who treats her like a doormat. The trio decides to take action, which involves Amy running for the PTA presidency against Gwendolyn, who reacts by targeting her daughter by planting drugs in her locker. (Remember, this is purportedly a comedy.)
Naturally, despite all the obstacles Amy will eventually triumph, not only by throwing a meet-and-greet party at which the wine flows freely and everybody gets sloshed, but by making that final pitch about making mistakes at the election rally—a message that resonates with all the other mothers in the room—and, the filmmakers obviously hope, in the theatre.
Virtually all the men in “Bad Moms” are jerks. Mike is an obtuse, selfish boor, and Kent a fascistic boob. Both get their comeuppance, of course. Dale is a goofball who doesn’t recognize Amy’s workplace worth—he fires her, only to realize that she was the only thing keeping the office from absolute chaos. Other male characters—the school principal (Wendell Pierce) and soccer coach (J.J. Watt) are weaklings, easily railroaded by Gwendolyn. Of course, this treatment of men might be considered fair, given how women have been portrayed in so many other movies; but since some of them have come from Lucas and Moore themselves, one has to doubt the sincerity of their message here. Of course, there are a couple instances of masculine propriety: Dylan actually learns to cook to help his mother, and an absolutely perfect guy named Jessie (Jay Hernandez)—a handsome widower with a darling daughter—is introduced to serve as a potential second spouse for Amy. He’s so good that he seems from another planet—or at least from another movie. And, of course, true to stereotype Amy melts in his presence—as in the dumbest romcom. That’s some testament to female liberation.
It’s also par for the course in a picture where women hardly come across as role models, either. Amy is spunky and Kiki chirpy, but both find their refuge in the bottle way too easily, and Carla is ostentatiously crass and unapologetically selfish. Poor little Jane is already a candidate for serious psychological trauma, and Gwendolyn is a storm trooper, though at the end she becomes part of the sisterhood, too.
Some of “Bad Moms” works on a simple sitcom level—a marital counseling session for Amy and Mike conducted by a skeptical therapist is a hoot, thanks to Wanda Sykes’ appearance as the doctor. There’s some repartee among Amy, Kiki and Carla vaguely reminiscent of the back-and-forth that once marked truly witty TV comedies like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (though mostly it hearkens back more to stuff like “Laverne and Shirley”). One also has to be grateful that it doesn’t descend too frequently to the gross-out limits that have marked movies like “The Hangover.” (Women still deserve some consideration, it seems.) It also has to be said that Kunis, Bell, Hahn and Applegate are able farceurs, with the movie providing Hahn in particular with what could be a true breakout role, and Laurence is a likable moppet. (None of the men come off particularly well, although Hernandez is certainly handsome and young Anthony once again shows that he’s one of the more personable male kid actors around.) From a technical standpoint the picture is okay, with Jim Denault’s widescreen cinematography using the New Orleans locations reasonably well.
While “Bad Moms” isn’t as awful as it might have been given its makers’ resume, that’s a very low bar. The movie remains a palpably fake female wish-fulfillment fantasy, contrived by men with nothing but dollar signs in mind.