Director: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Stars: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn
Here’s a fun bit of egocentric trivia nobody cares about; last December when I was compiling my top 25 movies of the year countdown (and oh how I’d reshuffle that now), Bad Moms was most definitely on the shortlist. I didn’t review it in the summer of 2016. I didn’t see it in the summer of 2016. But when I eventually caught up with it a few months down the line, I had a blast. But let’s not get wrapped up in hyperbole here. It ain’t brilliant. But it had the laughs, its cast had the chemistry, and in a tough year that was exceedingly welcome. And, in a year which also saw the Ghostbusters reboot get a ridiculously over-inflated shower of abuse, here was a lower profile all-girl comedy that sailed through sound. I guess that’s just what happens when you play with a crybaby’s toys.
But a sequel so soon and a Christmas one at that? Forget jingle bells. Alarm bells. Alarm bells. Alarm bells.
Because one of the many secret pacts we opt into in our craven, commercialised Western society is that Christmas-themed comedies are good. They’re mostly not good. In fact, if we’re being honest, they’re mostly really, really shit. Christmas films in general are shit. Some of you might cry Die Hard – which is a good movie – but it’s not that Christmassy. Not really. And sure there’s the occasional stone-cold classic, like Frank Capra’s shmaltzy It’s A Wonderful Life. But films like that are the exception to the rule. When it comes to family Christmas films in which families sit down and have family Christmasses… the lion’s share (and the puma’s share, and the cheetah’s share etc) are just plain shit. They’re part of the same tax on your time that so much of the rest of the holidays amount to (can you tell I begrudge this movie coming out in the first week of November yet?).
A Bad Moms Christmas comes at you with its problematic grammar and its blatant recycle of the first movie, only with added baubles and, somewhat inevitably, added parents. Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) are back and each has to endure a visit from mother this year. Amy’s mother Ruth – a scene-stealing Christine Baranski – has come to undermine her daughter’s imperfections, essentially replacing the Christina Applegate character of film one. Kiki’s mother Sandy – a scene-stealing Cheryl Hines – sheds light on the fuzzy ball of crazy that Bell so primly plays. And then there’s Carla’s mother, played by Susan Sarandon, who drunkenly falls off of a truck in search of a handout, and who is called…
Now that I’ve spoiled perhaps the film’s more sure-footed joke, I can numbly report that, despite this influx of great talent described above, A Bad Moms Christmas feels like the rush-job it suggested it would be. Lucas and Moore, the creative minds behind the Hangover films before this, know how to establish a formula, and Bad Moms seems to have found it quicker than most. Thus there are no real surprises in here and most of the narrative moves happen exactly as you would expect. Each mother/daughter relationship is tested for the reason you think it’s going to be, each hits a minor crisis, each resolves in compromise. The flashback wraparound from Amy’s perspective doesn’t work or help things, so much as provide a safe way in to a conspicuously scattershot first act. Much like last year’s original, there’s a fleeting brattiness at the midpoint as the younger moms decide they’ve had it up to here with [insert reason], so they get drunk in public, (but even that is all but forgotten about immediately). Act three is a reservoir for sentimentalism that the rest of the movie doggedly goes about filling.
And you know what? That’s fine. Of course, it’s not ideal. It would be preferable to have found some surprises here, to have been warmed by ingenuity, especially with so much moxie to spare between the cast members, but the way in which A Bad Moms Christmas coasts isn’t a tragedy. It’s a disappointment, but the stakes for this holiday cash cow were so small as to make it, well, no big deal. There are laughs to be had, but they don’t land where you’d expect. The movie hustles for a couple of standout situation set pieces, but these fall flat. No, some of the film’s best moments are in small, off-the-cuff, potentially improvised character moments when something is funny because it also rings as true. Kristen Bell is responsible for a few of these.
As Christmas comedies go, this passes muster (just barely), in that when set beside its contemporaries, it’s a little above average. A little. So on those terms, it’s all right for now. As far as the long-term is concerned, if Bad Moms wants to perpetuate, then there are some things it’ll need to address, both structurally (we can’t have the same story again, guys) and thematically (there must be more to being a mother than finding the middle ground between Martha Stewart and an REO Speedwagon roadie). The end of the movie threatens a Last Vegas style spin-off for the visiting grandmothers. What’s perhaps more worrying is that, based on much of the evidence here, that might be more welcome than a third film that’s dashed off in time for another holiday.