Film Review: ‘Bad Moms’

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Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn head up a fitfully hilarious satire of motherhood in the age of mommy wars.

In one of the many tellingly funny moments in “Bad Moms,” a fitfully hilarious satire of the woes of up-to-the-minute motherhood, Amy (Mila Kunis), a working parent of two who feels like she barely has time to breathe, trades barbs with her two new buddies about the escape hatch that each of them fantasizes about. Amy confesses that she’d love to have a quiet breakfast, and adds, with a wistful sense of impossibility, “By myself.” That, for her, would be nirvana. Then Kiki (Kristen Bell), a stay-at-home mom with four kids, goes her one better. She talks about her fantasy of being in a car accident, which would then result in a two-week hospital stay, during which she’d have nothing to do but lay around and eat Jell-O and watch bad TV. Kiki has some self-esteem issues (hence the personal-injury dimension of her escape plan). Nevertheless, it’s a sign of how close to the bone — and I don’t just mean the funny bone — “Bad Moms” hits that this anecdote provokes major giggles of recognition. A car accident? Why not. Anything to relieve the stressed-out behaviorally correct high-maintenance juggling act that is contemporary motherhood.

People with kids are notorious for saying they don’t have time to go to the movies. That raises a question regarding the target demo for “Bad Moms.” It’s a comedy about, and for, the current generation of overstressed, overworked, overly perfectionistic — and, as often as not, under-appreciated — mothers. But will they have the time and inclination to get away and see it? Let’s hope so, because the laughter this movie offers could provide cathartic medicine for the middle-class mom blues. Of course, it’s been shown that when a movie has “bad” in the title and features a true celebration of bad behavior (“Bad Santa,” “Bad Teacher”), it may just have a commercial edge. “Bad Moms” deserves to. Written and directed by the up-and-coming team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (“21 & Over”), it’s a sociological farce that revels in cruelty and raunch, yet it’s truly about something: the way that today’s moms, trapped in a bubble of never-ending demands, can think they’re going crazy — and can think that it’s crazy they’re even feeling that way (which only makes them feel crazier).

Amy, who lives in suburban Chicago, has two nice but overindulged middle-school brats, a deeply clueless husband, and a sales job at a hipster coffee company that’s supposed to be three days a week, only her entitled geek boss wants her there…always. Her days are a numbing whirlwind of spilled food and soccer games, housework and homework, pickups and drop-offs, and getting everywhere late. She’s neither an inept nor unloving mother — far from it. Yet she’s so hands-on that she spoils her kids and turns her life into thankless drudgery. According to the movie, she’s the prototype for what has, with the best of intentions, gone slightly off the rails in motherhood: an entire generation of women all working a little too hard to be supermoms.

Kiki, if possible, has less room for herself than Amy does, and that’s why they’re both drawn to Carla (Kathryn Hahn), a dissolute divorced parent who actually tries to act like a hooker and really is a bad mom. For her, the less time spent nurturing her dopey jock son the better. When Kiki and Amy come under Carla’s slovenly influence, it’s just what they need: a ticket to drinking, letting loose, slacking off — but more than that, it’s a way of giving in to their inner crazy. Owning it. They turn themselves into characters out of a feminine Adam Sandler comedy — and that turns out to be just what they should be doing. Their nemesis is Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), the snobbish P.T.A. president who’s a monster of control-freak discipline. She’s a passive-aggressive bee-otch, lording it over everyone, but the joke of Applegate’s acidly spot-on performance is that her Gwendolyn represents the fulfillment of everything that motherhood is now supposed to be. She’s doing it the “right” way (whatever that means), and has no patience for anyone who does it the “wrong” way (which is more or less everyone).

When, and why, did this ever happen to motherhood? After all, hasn’t it been fifty years since Betty Friedan wrote a book — “The Feminine Mystique” — about the existential drudgery of the early-’60s housewife? About women who felt imprisoned by a job the culture didn’t recognize as a job, and by the lack of options outside it? Wasn’t the feminist revolution supposed to be a way to bid goodbye to all that?

“Bad Moms” has the ruefully funny wisdom to say, “Yes and no.” The film takes off from the notion that even as women liberated themselves to join the work force, that didn’t necessarily make the job of motherhood any easier. In many ways, it made it harder. If the new ideal was to “have it all,” the new reality was that women were now often expected to do it all.

But that point has been made many times. Where “Bad Moms” plunges into zesty new satirical terrain is in capturing the ruthless one-upmanship of the mommy-wars era, when all the progressive thinking of the last 40 years has only ratcheted up the perfectionistic demands on children and parents alike. Before, everyone simply read and followed their Dr. Spock. Now, almost every aspect of child-rearing is placed under the social-media microscope — the food that kids are eating (should they have sugar? gluten? nuts?), their sleep training and play habits, how early they launch into pre-school and start climbing that ladder to success. In the new era, every decision reflects a belief, an ideology, and the result is that moms, in addition to being overworked, spend much of their lives fighting the feeling that every decision they make is being judged. Or, as one of the characters in “Bad Moms” puts it, “In this day and age, it’s impossible to be a good mom.”

Like so many men in so many decades of arrested-development comedies, the heroines of “Bad Moms” respond to all this by getting in touch with their inner delinquent. The film has some of the full-throttle raunchy glee of a comedy like “Bridesmaids” or “Trainwreck,” even though it lacks their full-blooded humanity. There’s a lot of formulaic cereal floating around in the movie’s farce recipe. When Amy’s 12-year-old daughter, the precocious, owl-eyed Jane (Oona Laurence), is benched on the soccer team due to the machinations of Gwendylon, Amy decides to run against her for P.T.A. president — a standard clanking 1980s slobs-against-the-squares plot. Amy’s husband, Mike (David Walton), who she catches in the middle of an on-line sexual affair, is a one-dimensional boyish lout, and the hunky widower (Jay Hernandez) who attracts her eye is a little too perfect a dreamboat.

“Bad Moms” is often a bit of a cartoon, yet it’s funny enough to be resonant. When Amy realizes that she needs to take a stab at sleeping with someone new, the scene where she tries on the sad clothes in her closet has a ring of truth that will leave you in stitches. Gazing at one droopy dress, Carla says, “Are you trying to get laid or adopted?” and the number that both women do on Amy’s “sexy” bra is a comic epiphany that keeps on giving. Kathryn Hahn, with her regal sneer, delivers her lines with the crack of a whip; she rules “Bad Moms” like a born movie-comedy star. (If she had been cast in the remake of “Ghostbusters,” the ghosts would have melted.) But the other two actresses are aces as well: Bell, so pert and polite you’re just waiting to see the demons she’s carrying around inside, and Kunis, whose accomplished performance turns Amy into the movie’s frantic, devoted, beleaguered, proud, confused, nurturing soul. Near the end, when a bunch of moms stand up at a P.T.A. meeting to confess their sins, the hilarity is that they’re speaking for everyone in the audience: all the moms who feel like they’re bad, because no one could be as good as they’re supposed to be.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate, Oona Laurence, David Walton, Annie Mumolo, Jay Hernandez, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Bad Moms hit theaters July 29.

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