If ever there was a moment for a movie about three sexually ravenous, deeply exhausted, and spiritually emancipated women written by the men responsible for The Hangover, this was it. But despite an occasional tendency to fall back on limp jokes or familiar beats, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s Bad Moms is both very funny, and deep enough to transcend stock movie mom archetypes to tell a story about personal dignity, and how it’s okay to let yourself down.
Amy (Mila Kunis) is the quintessential career women—an overworked and undervalued mother whose life has been defined by an unmanaged balance of work/ home life since her first child at 20. She can already see her inferiority complex being passed down to her two kids. Jane (Oona Laurence) is paralyzed with fear about college applications that are years away, while Dylan (Emjay Anthony) is unable to do a single school project on her own. Her husband (David Walton) may as well be her third child given his inability to do anything around the house.
After a breaking point at her sales job at a hipster Coffee imprint, and a discovery that her husband has an internet girlfriend—Amy’s done with the supermom shtick. That at first means no longer making breakfast for her kids and sleeping in late, but that’s before she meets her entourage of fellow rebellious mothers who enable her to drink on weekdays, and embrace her own self-worth.
These matronesque soul mates include Kiki (Kristen Bell). a pathologically meek women who has forfeited a personal life for her bullying kids, and Carla (Kathryn Hahn, one of our national treasures), a single mom brimming with East Coast brassiness and a bigger sexual appetite than Samantha from Sex and the City. Together, they’re an affront to every stereotypical expectation of motherhood. No one’s more offended by their behavior than Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), a self-appointed Queen Bee who presides over the PTA with an iron fist, and makes life miserable for Amy’s kids.
Their search for independence mostly amounts to a gender reversal of the depraved behavior that has been all over male-dominated comedy films over the past decade. Lucas and Moore don’t have much of a visual imagination for these big moments. Over and over, the directors return to slow-motion whether they’re filming the women making makeshift White Russians in the aisle of a grocery store, or partying like they’re trying to re-enact one of Caligula’s orgies.
Still, the script is aware enough to recognize that their ideal freedom is just as much about the pleasures of enjoying a movie on a work day, having a quiet breakfast, or going on a date without shame. It’s to the credit of the cast that these scenes land more often than not—Hahn is the MVP here by a country mile—but it is nonetheless surprising to see the writing’s sensitivity towards difficult subjects like separation and the women’s need for a break, even as their actions begin hurting the people they love.
Lucas and Moore still know how to write a raunchy scene—there’s a pretty funny extended visual joke involving a hoodie and circumcision—but the most insightful scenes are about the conflicted nature of motherhood. One of the best sequences shows the women going around the table and saying something they hate about their kids until they’ve accidentally made each other sob.
Above anything, these moms are more worried that their kids will become bad people than the possibility that they’ll fail a test, or do something wrong. And for a while, the script similarly bears that message out in its clash between the moms and the dictatorial PTA. That’s partly why the subsequent third act feels particularly wrongheaded. For a film that otherwise never stoops to punishing these women, it begins to feel startlingly programmatic.
And by the time it gets back on track, it nearly collapses into phoniness as its previously rejected conception of motherhood is embraced in a cartoonish finale. But the film nonetheless has a final message of universal love for mothers and what they go through on a daily basis that rings true. It’s a tidy ending, but one, that like the film as a whole, honors these women as who they want to be, not what they should be.
Directors: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Writers: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jay Hernandez, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo, David Walton, Clark Duke, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony
Release Date: July 29, 2016
Michael Snydel is a Chicago-based freelance critic who regularly writes for Paste and The Film Stage, and has contributed to the A.V. Club, Vague Visages, and once upon a time, The Dissolve. You can follow him on Twitter, where he routinely overshares his thoughts on Krautrock, The OC, and trashy horror films that no one should watch.