Much of the pre-release chatter around "Mother's Day," the latest holiday-themed group therapy session from director Garry Marshall ("Valentine's Day," "New Year's Eve"), has focused on the subject of Julia Roberts' hair — specifically, the strawberry-blond Anna Wintour bob that her character wears throughout. As the diligent investigators at People recently confirmed, Roberts donned the exact same wig 17 years ago for a brief scene in "Notting Hill," in which she played an actress playing an astronaut in an outer-space thriller called "Helix."
For some fans, all this hair talk may trigger a flood of nostalgia for the '90s, when Roberts' long, almost Samsonian curls — seen to especially voluminous effect in "Pretty Woman," her first collaboration with Marshall — signaled a star at the height of her cultural and commercial supremacy. But the "Helix" flashback also serves another purpose, which is to identify the genre to which "Mother's Day" properly belongs. It's not a romantic dramedy; it's science fiction.
The setting is a well-furnished, comfortably upper-middle-class planet that vaguely resembles our own, albeit with conspicuously more flowers, swimming pools and exercise equipment. For all the on-screen laughter and tears, the air feels strained, sinister and charged with desperation. There are a few nonwhite actors in the cast — Aasif Mandvi plays a frazzled dad, and Anoush NeVart shows up as his saucy, sari-wearing mother — but they are generally treated as comic anomalies to be identified and eliminated as quickly as possible, sort of like the replicants in "Blade Runner."
Meanwhile, even the ensemble's native English speakers approach their dialogue in the stilted, uncomprehending manner of people behaving under the possible influence of nerve gas. And what they mainly chatter about — with a monotony that wears perilously thin over the course of almost two hours — is Mother's Day, Mother's Day, Mother's Day, and all the attendant pressures and anxieties that are stirred up in its annual wake. "You're really doing what's best for the kids." "I have abandonment issues." "No matter what's happened between us, you're always my mother." "I was adopted." "I came from a sperm donor." And finally: "This is all so stupid."
Quite so. From awkward start to merciful finish, "Mother's Day" is a grim, listless affair that may leave you pining for the relative pep and coherence of its predecessors (both of which were scripted by Katherine Fugate), or at least a few of their incidental pleasures. There's no one here as memorably off-key as Taylor Swift in "Valentine's Day," and the blooper reel doesn't have a single throwaway gag as charming as Zac Efron and Michelle Pfeiffer tearing up the dance floor in "New Year's Eve." What the movie does have is a new trio of screenwriters (Anya Kochoff Romano, Matthew Walker and Tom Hines) who have duly reproduced the Fugate formula of serving up five or six pedestrian movies for the price of one.
Roberts plays Miranda Collins, whose name suggests a combination fashion-magazine editor and trash-romance novelist; instead, she's a home-shopping-network celebrity who hawks a line of crystal mood pendants while keeping her own emotions tightly under wraps. At the opposite end of the social spectrum is Kristin (Britt Robertson, "Tomorrowland"), who has a baby with her British bartender boyfriend, Zack (Jack Whitehall), but keeps turning down his marriage proposals. You almost understand why after enduring a few of Zack's stand-up comedy routines, which occasion some of the least persuasive laugh-track accompaniment in recent memory.
The closest thing to a fully developed character falls to the ever-appealing Jennifer Aniston as an interior decorator named Sandy, who fears losing her two boys when her ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) marries a twentysomething bombshell (Shay Mitchell). Meanwhile, Sandy carries on an awkward semi-flirtation with Bradley (Jason Sudeikis), a gym owner who's having trouble raising his two daughters nearly a year after their mother (Jennifer Garner) died in military service overseas.
The plight of America's troops abroad has long been a fixture of this franchise — Roberts played a soldier in "Valentine's Day," as did Common in "New Year's Eve" — and it's not the only respect in which "Mother's Day" tries to cultivate a heartland-specific appeal. Tellingly, this is the first movie in the series set not in Los Angeles or New York, but in Atlanta (not that you'd necessarily know it from Marshall's flat, generic visuals).
That geographical shift introduces some stereotypical Southern prejudice in the form of a subplot involving Jesse (Kate Hudson), who has a child with her Indian American husband (Mandvi), and her sister, Gabi (Sarah Chalke), who has a kid with her lesbian partner (Cameron Esposito). Somehow, the two siblings have managed to avoid sharing any news of their life choices with their distant, ultra-conservative Texan parents (Margo Martindale and Robert Pine), who are clearly in for, well, the mother of all surprises.
The ritual of squabbling and reconciliation that ensues may well be Marshall's attempt to reach across the political aisle, though he lacks the finesse to distinguish between humor that mocks racist, homophobic attitudes and humor that is itself mildly racist and homophobic. The lurching incoherence of "Mother's Day" is that it crudely solicits your amusement one minute, then expects you to tear up at a series of shameless third-act twists involving a cemetery visit, an asthma attack and an impromptu wedding. Have I said too much? Hardly. If you've seen any of these movies, you know how this one ends — not a minute too soon.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for language and some suggestive material
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: In general release