The film that Bad Moms most reminded me of was — help me, Jesus — Moms’ Night Out.
Both films are co-directed by men. Bad Moms gives Jon Lucas and Scott Moore full writing credit, while Moms’ Night Out divides that between co-director Jon Erwin and Andrea Gyertson Nasfell. Both films center on a trio of moms bonding over slapstick comedy. Granted Mom’s Night Out has a lot more God talk and a lot less “F” words, but at heart, I’m not sure how different the two films’ messages are.
“I think we’re all bad moms,” Amy (Mila Kunis) tells a PTA meeting in the film’s in-case-you-didn’t-get-it expository climax. Here’s the thing, though. They are not. Deep down, it’s hard to believe Amy feels that way about herself, because the movie doesn’t ever feel that way about her…and doesn’t risk letting the audience either.
Sure, Amy’s kids (for whom she says she would die) are always perfectly bratty and cruel at just the perfect moment to drive the emotional knife in deeper, but can anyone take her daughter’s I-want-to-go-stay-with-dad speech as anything other than punishment? Amy’s soon to be ex has some bad grooming habits, insists that having a Skype masturbation partner is not an affair because he’s never actually touched the other woman, and whines to his therapist that Amy hasn’t given him a “blowie” in five-years. There’s absolutely no way you aren’t rooting for Amy to ditch this loser, her “mom bra,” and her inhibitions and get it on with the hunky single-dad that the moms lust after each morning as they drop the tots off for school.
Amy ostensibly feels inferior to Gwendolyn, the current PTA chairperson who manages to whip out professional quality Powerpoint presentations about which ingredients are banned from the bake sale. When Amy refuses to become one of Gwendolyn’s bake sale Gestapo, the perfect moms turn on her–and inexplicably get the bulk of the school moms to shun her like Hester Prynne. Only in a world driven by the necessity of a three act Hollywood structure would anyone look at Gwendolyn and say they wished moms today were more like her than Amy. The film wants to pit having your heart in the right place against meeting society’s silly and unrealistic expectations of perfection as though its audience won’t be sure for the first ninety minutes whether loving your kids or having a successful bake sale is the better metric by which to judge maternal virtue.
Soon Amy is bonding with the other rejects on the social island of misfit moms. Kristen Bell plays a mom frazzled to near tears by having four kids and the complete responsibility to care for them. (She confesses that she and her husband have sex once a week, after Blue Bloods, so that she can fantasize about Tom Selleck.) Kathryn Hahn is the mom who couldn’t stop giving a flip because she never did in the first place. One admires Amy for her gumption in speaking out only a little; the other mocks her wardrobe and fear in only speaking out a little.
As an aside, I interrupt this review to say I spent a good thirty minutes of the film wondering if it sucked more to be Kristen Bell and suspect in your bones at 36 that you’ll never get a better role than Veronica Mars, to be Kathryn Hahn at 43 and suspect in your bones that you’ll never get a role as good as Veronica Mars, or to be Jada Pinkett Smith and have to pretend you’re grateful for bit parts in other actresses’ movies making jokes about from which guys you would accept anal sex.
Okay, close digression. What does all this have to do with Moms’ Night Out, you ask?
It seems to me that both films, while giving lip service to the unrealistic expectations of society (or culture, or others, or bad people, i.e. people not as enlightened and tolerant as us) that wear on women nevertheless circle back and hold up their own standard(s) of ideal motherhood that people must conform to.
Twice Amy uses the word “impossible” to describe the standards to which she holds herself. “In this day and age, it’s impossible to be a good mom,” is postulated early in the film. Later, after asserting to the PTA that they are all bad moms, she answers her own rhetorical question of why that is so with, “Because being a mom today is impossible.”
I’ve never been a mom–today or any day–but I confess that the “today” in the last quote bugged me a bit. Was there some better, easier time (50s? 60s? 80s?) where being a mom wasn’t impossible? Where being willing to do “literally anything” for your kids, including die, was sufficient to get you a pat on the back and an atta-girl from the neighbors? Or is the notion that women (or other minorities) have it worse now than at any period in history the strange, unacknowledged mirror image of white, male rage fueling the ascendancy of any politician who promises to restore power and privilege to where they rightfully belong?
Also hastily scribbled in my notes was this gem: “We’re killing ourselves trying to be perfect!” Laying aside other deep concerns about how the film fuels fantasy by eliding the effects of mom’s newly found rebelliousness–just who the heck cleaned the house after the the signature wild party?– where exactly are these kids (for whom she would do literally anything, including die) when her new friend with privileges is asking if it would be okay if he goes down on her again? — how are single moms who aren’t still supported by their husbands supposed to evidence their newly discovered backbones by quitting their jobs? — the notions that self-care and self-love are synonymous with self indulgence and that any attempts to hold yourself to a standard of behavior is akin to self-abasement is…well…a little scary.
Ultimately Bad Moms and Moms’ Night Out can moan from now until the cows come home about how hard society’s expectations are on women, and they’ll get nothing but sympathetic nods and a few uncomfortable chuckles. They won’t make much headway in changing those expectations until they offer something in their place besides let-go-and-let-God or what’s-good-for-the-overgrown-adolescent-goose-is-good-for-the-adolescent-gander.
The former just engenders more pushing of the resentment and anger down even deeper, lest is get directed at the God whom we are told made things that way and made women to like it. The latter just engenders a “pox on both your houses” attitude. Congratulations, Mila Kunis, you can be just as raunchy, crass, and unfunny as Adam Sandler.
Postscript: I have no kids. I have looked in myself but never found the desire to conceive and raise children. I can’t imagine there are no women who are like me in that. Yet I am not bombarded with the message that–whatever else my faults–my masculine virtue cannot be called into question because I love my kids (and would do “literally anything for them,” including die). There are quite a few women, I imagine, who will see the struggles of their peers in Moms’ Night Out and Bad Moms and identify with them. In doing so, perhaps, they will have some burdens lifted. There will probably be less who, for whatever reason (they can’t have kids, they’ve never felt the maternal instinct, they have even less emotional, financial, and sexual support than do our put-upon lasses),feel a deepening of their own oppression and depression. But there will be some. I’m as confident of that as any man can be when making assertions about motherhood.