By Preston Wilder
This wouldn’t have happened in the old days, the days before Christmas lights in November and radio stations playing Christmas carols from December 1, the days when Christmas meant a couple of days off, a tree in the corner, and presents for easily-impressed kids who’d have been happy with the proverbial pieces of fruit wrapped in brown paper. Did those days really exist? Kind of, at least in Cyprus (well, except for the pieces of fruit). It’s all changed, of course, Christmas so pumped-up and commercialised now that broad, raunchy comedies get made about the stress brought on by lighting trees, wrapping presents, etc. We’re obsessed with Christmas, and we kind of hate it too.
A Bad Moms Christmas is part of the commercialisation of Christmas, at least insofar as it buys into the hype about seasonal angst – but it’s also a mess by any standards, building laughs on the most cartoonish of characters, lapsing into rank sentimentality and, like the first Bad Moms, giving short shrift to the whole ‘bad’ concept. These three mums – played by Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell – get approximately five minutes of being bad, when they get drunk in a mall and go on a mission to “take back Christmas”: they pour tequila in a tray of samples, writhe all over Santa and put the old man in a Santa sandwich, then top it off by nicking a Christmas tree, all to the strains of some upbeat dance rubbish (we still haven’t found a bad-girl anthem to replace Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’). Then they go back to being mopey and guilt-ridden over failing their kids and not being good-enough mums.
The guilt is strong here, and it corrodes the whole movie. Mila Kunis is way too dynamic an actress to be faffing over Christmas decorations and referring to her kids as “the only thing that actually matters” (especially when the kids in question are whiny and ungrateful). Her two co-conspirators do better, though Hahn’s foul-mouthed free spirit is too big for this suburban milieu – and of course we’re also joined by the three grandmas, who are as different as chalk, cheese and some other thing beginning with ‘ch’. Hahn’s mum (Susan Sarandon) is a weed-smoking gypsy who arrives having hitched a ride with a trucker, Bell’s (Cheryl Hines) a clingy nightmare who wants to be “best friends forever”, while Kunis’s mum (Christine Baranski) is the most impossible of the lot, a patrician fault-finder who hijacks Mila’s home for her own Christmas party and delights in crushing her daughter: “I like your hair. It looks like you’re not trying so hard”.
I feel bad for hating this movie, since I unexpectedly liked Daddy’s Home 2 just a couple of weeks ago; isn’t this just the distaff version? Maybe – yet that film was all of a piece, whereas this one feels choppy and disjointed (for one thing, there is no known universe in which these three women could be best friends). Even more rancid is the have-your-cake-and-eat-it sensibility that presents the broadest of cartoons, then furiously backtracks to set up a sentimental finale. Daddy’s Home did that too, of course – but it didn’t have a scene where Mel Gibson’s bad grandpa reassured the grandkids that “both your parents really love you”, as Baranski does here. For baby Jesus’ sake, guys, if you’re going to create a monster at least have the courage to keep her monstrous, don’t change her halfway-through into some misunderstood victim for the sake of Christmas togetherness.
With a few exceptions – Piper Laurie in Carrie, Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate, Mo’Nique in Precious – American movies haven’t done very well by bad mums; the totem of the mother is just too sacred. There’s a scene here where Bell and her deeply weird, smothering parent go into therapy – and the therapist unexpectedly turns on Bell (it’s supposed to be funny), listing all the pains mothers have to put up with from daughters, from babyhood onwards.‘You want to know what made your mother crazy? You made your mother crazy!’ cries the shrink, piling yet more guilt on our heroines’ shoulders – albeit probably striking a chord with mums in the audience, who are all too happy to cast themselves as embattled martyrs.
This whole empty, dishonest movie is one giant act of pandering, a passive-aggressive celebration of mum-hood disguised by the usual layer of dirty jokes and a heaping helping of Yuletide sugar – though I guess it’ll work a bit better if you genuinely think of this as the most wonderful time of the year, as opposed to the most annoying. “I’m Amy Mitchell,” says Mila in the opening voice-over, “and this year I’ve ruined Christmas.” You go, girl!
DIRECTED BY Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
STARRING Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christine Baranski
US 2017 104 mins