It's a peculiar bit of Hollywood logic, having the two guys who wrote "The Hangover" write and direct a movie called "Bad Moms." As if by some transitive property of film comedy, their having written a smash hit of men being oblivious, immature and reckless somehow makes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore the ideal candidates to explore the difficulties modern mothers face to balance conflicting responsibilities with the need to remain individualized people too.
If only it were that easy. Not surprisingly, "Bad Moms" is an intermittently funny, occasionally raunchy movie that regards its central characters from an essential remove. Like husbands who think that carrying in the groceries is really pitching in, Lucas and Moore have their hearts in the right place, but their efforts have little real insight or impact.
Mila Kunis plays Amy Mitchell, living in the suburbs of Chicago and trying to hold it together as a stressed-out working mother and wife, balancing her kids, her marriage and in her early 30s already feeling aged-out at her office job. After she discovers her husband has been having an online affair, she decides to stop trying so hard.
She soon enlists meek at-home mom Kiki (Kristen Bell) and bawdy single mother Carla (Kathryn Hahn) to her cause, and the three begin ignoring many of the everyday obligations that have taken up so much of their lives. This sets them afoul of intense PTA leader Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) and her pair of devoted sidekicks (Jada Pinkett Smith and Annie Mumolo), upsetting the delicate balance of local power.
A number of other recent films have also played the women-behaving-badly comedy card, including "Sisters," "Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising" and "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates." "Bad Moms" continually seems confused as to just how to lean in, lurching between outlandish comedy set pieces based on public meltdowns and misbehavior that would likely get one arrested or injured in real life while also wanting to create some semblance of an emotional reality for its characters. "Bad Moms" wants to have it all, but never finds the right balance.
The movie does tap into the tremendous pressures that contemporary mothers feel to both do it all and make doing it all look as easy as a well-curated Pinterest page. (Martha Stewart has a knowing cameo.) It is steeped in the same sort of bourgeois mindfullness skewered by the likes of the Los Feliz Daycare Twitter feed or tackled with a deeper sense of pathos by Jill Soloway's 2013 film "Afternoon Delight," which not coincidentally starred Hahn and featured Mumolo in a supporting role. There's also a "Moms" bit about Kunis not realizing how unsexy her bra is that recalls a similar moment with Bell from earlier this year in "The Boss."
The central trio of Kunis, Bell and Hahn and their manic commitment are essential to what does work in the film. After an opening section that feels like introductory throat clearing, the movie kicks into gear once it gets the three together. The first major comedy moment, as they drunkenly converge on the local supermarket, has a welcome rowdiness. But then the sequence's use of slow-motion to ramp up the ridiculousness is something that Lucas and Moore return to again and again as their only sign of visual thinking or invention.
The picture's best and most outrageous moment comes when Hahn attempts to explain to Kunis how to handle an uncircumcised penis by using Bell in a zip-up hoodie as a visual aid. It's unexpected and raunchy and funny but also rooted in friendship and a practicality that unites the dueling agendas of the film like few other scenes.
The male characters are reduced to the sort of functionary sketches that are more typically the women's roles in dude-centric movies like, for example, "The Hangover." Bell's husband is overbearing, Kunis' believes his participation ends when he brings home a paycheck and Hahn has an unseen ex. That idea might feel fresher and have more bite if the female characters were in turn more fully realized.
None of the three main characters has a significant personality trait beyond her single defining point. Pinkett Smith and Mumolo are left just standing around next to Applegate's full-grown mean girl. (Mumolo, an Oscar nominee for co-writing "Bridesmaids," seems particularly sidelined, as one can't help but imagine how her take on this story might have played out.)
Hollywood will always make some movies that are just OK; pleasant, make-work entertainments that aren't aiming for much more than a light diversion. And so there is something refreshing even within "Bad Moms" for its attempt to turn an eye toward stories that have often been overlooked and flipping the focus to a female point-of-view. It feels like a start, maybe, but would have been so much better served as a story told from a perspective other than that of male outsiders like Lucas and Moore, who turn their heroines into unconvincing femme-bros. Next time, let the ladies fully take the wheel.
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Running time: 1 hour and 41 minutes
Rating: R for sexual material, full frontal nudity, language throughout and drug and alcohol content