Moms’ Night Out (Erwin and Erwin, 2014)
Moms’ Night Out is the first (and so far only) “Christian” movie that I could maybe, sort of, imagine a non-Christian enjoying. Not every non-Christian, certainly, Maybe not most. But some…and that’s progress after a fashion.
The reason I say that is that Moms’ Night Out is a Christian comedy that cares about being funny as well as being Christian. It succeeds at being the former, albeit more inconsistently than it does at being the latter. Truth is, though, comedy is hard to come by at the movies these days. There aren’t many that aren’t crass, “R” rated, and still not very funny, anyway. That’s why I suspect that so long as Christian comedies can be completely wholesome (no breasts and swear words) and even just a little funny, they could find a more sympathetic audience than Christian dramas.
And Moms’ Night Out is a little funny. I laughed. It tries a little too hard to be zany and some of its bits fall flat, but it’s at its best when it is at its most natural. It’s worth pointing out, too, that a lot of modern comedy is joke oriented, and Moms’ Night Out is situation oriented. As a result, it is hard to translate the humor (or the sentiment for that matter) to a commercial. This is one of those films that is significantly better than its trailer, and one that gets better as it goes along because some of the best jokes (such as Robert Amaya’s character being stopped by a cop while driving a van full of kids not his own) are cumulative–and contextual.
The comedy genre is an interesting one for Christian films. On the one hand, there is an populist quality to comedy that works against whatever prejudices the audience or critic might bring to the table. If you laugh, you laugh, and who cares if it is a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew making you laugh? On the other hand, the genre does call into question some of the assumptions that often go into making Christian films. Are some things funny only to (or from) Christians? Yes and no. As evidenced in such films as The Muslims are Coming! and When Jews Were Funny, some observational comedy comes out of cultural expectations and experience.
Really, though, the comedy in Moms’ Night Out isn’t of that sort. It is more generic, grounded in somewhat universal experiences (such as kids saying the wrong thing at the least convenient time) rather than in culturally specific ones. In that sense, Moms’ Night Out is really more of a generic comedy with Christian characters than it is a Christian comedy. Also, while there is a Christian message–delivered by the least likely character–it isn’t evangelistic. The themes and message are about living a Christian life, not about how to become a Christian.
While the film has a fine ensemble cast, the focus is clearly on Allyson (Sarah Drew) a frazzled mom who has a meltdown when her husband, Sean (Sean Astin) has travel difficulties that keep him from getting home on Mother’s Day. Sean finally arrives home with flowers and lots of loving sympathy, but he finds Allyson curled up in the closet, beaten down by a combination of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. Sean presses Allyson to take a night out with her lady friends while he watches the kids. It sounds like a good plan, but it turns out putting the kids in dad’s care might not be such a good idea–and that Allyson, like most mom’s, may have issues that can’t be resolved by a single evening’s respite. I don’t want to summarize too much more because that’s giving jokes away, and that’s not fair to the film.
Moms’ Night Out does a number of things well (and, yes, that means there’s a “but” coming), including distributing some of the personal challenges and struggles across several of Allyson’s companions so that no one character has to be the banner for ideal motherhood. Patricia Heaton plays a pastor’s wife who has a hard time letting her guard down since she has become accustomed to people seeing her as an office (or an extension of her husband’s office) rather than an actual human being. Bridgette (Abbie Cobb) is dealing with the challenges of motherhood with less support than Allyson is getting. Izzy (Logan White) has her own set of problems.
The film also mostly–mostly–avoids turning the travails of moms into an indictment of dads. There is a little bit of the cultural stereotyping that dads, even involved dads, are less competent around kids. I winced when Sean reassured Allyson that he, not his friend, would be “babysitting” their children. The film depicts a very complementarian view of marriage. Not enough to make this egalitarian reviewer revolt, but enough to keep me from fully embracing some of the film’s implied messages. The affirmation of motherhood is, or at least should be, a universal goal, but it is a bit undercut when the the role of mom depicted is primarily (exclusively?) a white, middle-class, protestant one.
The tensions between the film’s desire to play for a broader audience and its story’s rootedness in evangelical culture is most clearly seen in the difficulty of bringing its themes to a resolution. The plot–the source of comedy–is resolved easily enough. But concerns linger. The script seems aware that simply implying a single night out is enough to cure what ails Allyson risks underselling the depth and severity of the personal challenges facing her. But it doesn’t really have any inclination to explore her situation and investigate the causes of her unhappiness, much less whether they are connected to the way her (sub)culture insists her life must be organized and prioritized.
“I have this incredible life” Allyson says early on, “so why do I feel this way?” Unfortunately, that’s a question that is never answered, never, I would argue, truly asked of her instead of by her. Towards the conclusion, Allyson insists that her faith gives her purpose and fulfillment, allows her to see her role as a mom is important. Then she goes on to add: “Am I always happy? No, that’s a fantasy.”
There is, I grant, a seed of truth in Allyson’s claim that nobody is perfectly happy, but that both avoids and begs the question of why she is not. It was around this point that I was most displeased with the film. Early on, Allyson tries to tell herself that she is not happy. The movie (through those responding to her) essentially tells her that she is not unhappy, she is just stressed, tired, or going through a rough patch. But you know what? If I came home and found my wife curled in a fetal position in the closet, I might think she was, you know, depressed…in a clinical sense. Maybe Allyson needs an antidepressant more than breakfast in bed. Maybe Allyson needs a more equitable division of labor rather than an occasional respite from her proscribed role. Allyson’s summation seems to me to send the message to moms that the reason they are so honored is because we acknowledge that their situation pretty much sucks and that any sane person (of either gender) would be unhappy if they had to live Allyson’s life. Maybe it also implies that faith means learning to accept your unhappiness is always a result of sin and rebellion. The way to deal with it and get over it is to learn to accept yourself.
I do believe that people–maybe moms especially–can exacerbate the unrealistic expectations of their culture by trying to be perfect rather than accepting they are not. I agree too that trying to be perfect can be exhausting and emotionally draining…enough to drive anyone to depression. But I don’t think women just drop out of the womb feeling those unrealistic expectations; I think we help put them on them. (And my antecedent for “we” here is Christians, not just men.) If that’s true, then simply being told that God loves you and accepts you the way you are (so long as you accept and embrace the role that we tell you God appointed you to have) wouldn’t go very far towards making me feel better or helping me figure out how to ignore or slough off the pressures and expectations that had made me depressed in the first place. Cheer up, God loves you may be true, but I’m not sure it’s always the best advice for the person who is depressed.
And yet every time I was ready to give up on the film for being too culturally and theologically shallow, it made me laugh. It made me laugh more than did Bad Words. Certainly more than The Heat or Grown Ups 2 or Fort Tilden or The Internship. Take the Christian parts out of it, and Moms’ Night Out holds its own against any of those films, if for no other reason than that when the jokes aren’t working, at least you aren’t watching a moose pee in a guy’s mouth, a pair of spoiled brats leaving kittens to drown in a trash can, or a guy paying a prostitute to show her breasts to an adolescent.