There’s a scene halfway through “Bad Moms,” wherein a PTA meeting full of suburban moms turns into a full-on frat house-style rager. Moms in sweater sets, khakis and sensible sneakers chug liquor straight from the bottle, make out, huff whippets, crash tricycles and urinate on lawns, all in glorious slow motion, hair and spittle flying to a pulsing pop beat. It’s featured heavily in the trailer for the film, and is the best scene in the movie. Bad mothers? Shut your mouth.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the rest of “Bad Moms” has been reverse engineered around this scene, which plays on our collective expectations about motherly behavior. To pad out the rest of the film, writer/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have plucked some pop psychology from the parenting zeitgeist, stuffed it into a high school mean girls formula, and then added plenty of f-bombs and raunchy sex talk to make it edgy.
The number one bad mom in question is actually a pretty good mom. Amy (Mila Kunis) has been a working soccer mom since the age of 20, making everything perfect for her two terrible kids (she claims to love them, but they are entitled, neurotic demon spawn to any outside observer) and no-good deadbeat husband Mike (David Walton). After a marital rift and a very bad day capped with a bake sale meeting run by the dictatorial Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), Amy throws up her hands and cries uncle with the whole perfect mom thing.
She finds companionship in two other outsiders – Kiki (Kristen Bell), a haggard housewife to four little ones, and Carla (Kathryn Hahn), a single mom who wields her sexuality like a weapon. The trio bands together to form a Bad Mom movement of sorts. Here, “bad” means selfish. It means taking the time to be a person in the world, someone who savors a solo breakfast, who thinks about her own needs first, who has a personal identity other than “Mom.”
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There are some other trenchant ideas about millennial mom culture that flit by, but “Bad Moms” never manages to pin them down to truly draw blood. At one point Kiki and Carla rattle off the sub-groups of moms, from the Crossfit moms to the blogging moms to the divorced black lesbian moms – it’s a funny joke, but it would have been better to see some of these groups in the mix. Instead, every mom we see has the same preppy cardigan uniform and uptight attitude.
While it’s clear that Lucas and Moore have great affection for moms good and bad, they definitely aren’t moms themselves. The moms are cartoonish caricatures, and the emotions ring hollow. When Kunis declares her love for her kids, it feels like she’s just met them.
The problem with “Bad Moms” isn’t the concept, or the message about the struggle to raise good people in the world – it’s the execution. From the micro level to the macro, the film is a hasty, shoddy mess, with performances that are serviceable at best. It’s stitched together with a hatchet edit job, glossed over with slow-mo and Top 40 hits. “Bad Moms” makes a compelling argument for embracing imperfection and vulnerability, but we shouldn’t have to accept that kind of messiness in our movies.
Cast: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jay Hernandez, David Walton
Director: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Rating: R (sexual material, full frontal nudity, language throughout, and drug and alcohol content)
Opens: Friday, July 29