I can’t quite explain why I harbored high hopes for Bad Moms, a comedy about three stressed-out Chicago mothers on an empowerment bender. I enjoyed a few moments of Zach Galafianakis–generated quirky levity in The Hangover, created by Bad Moms’ directors and co-writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, but for the most part I sat through that film as if I had a hangover, queasy and listless, having been fast-forwarded through the fun part where you get to quaff drinks and act ridiculous with your friends.
But there’s been such a turnaround in the way women’s lives and friendships are shown onscreen even in the seven years since The Hangover’s release and such an onslaught of good film and television projects by and about smart, funny, real-seeming women—Bridesmaids! Spy! Girls! Broad City! Shonda Rhimes’ whole empire! I figured Lucas and Moore must be intending to subvert their own party bros formula, to tell The Hangover’s story of gendered domestic confinement and the fantasy of escape from the women’s point of view.
Give me credit, anyway, for holding the creators to a higher standard than they held themselves. Bad Moms is seldom flat-out sexist, except insofar as it imposes the standard movie requirement that all leading ladies be at least 300 percent more attractive than the average real-life woman and at least 30 percent more attractive than their own leading men. The movie has its girl power–affirming heart in approximately the right place, and it boasts at least one outsized comic performance—Kathryn Hahn, too often a utility player in other people’s movies, gets a chance to take up more screen time than usual, and makes the most of every minute. But the dad minds behind Bad Moms don’t seem to understand, or be terribly curious about, the minds of mothers; they’re happy to affirm the apparently bedrock truth that all moms are deep down indefatigable tigresses, neurotically overinvested in maximizing both their children’s self-actualization and their Ivy League prospects. Or pastel-clad housewives, or skanky single-mom sexpots.
Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) exists somewhere in the center of this isosceles triangle of possible momdoms. She’s married, not happily, to a brutish lout (David Walton). Their two children are about 11 and 12; an early first-person voiceover establishes that Amy had the eldest at 20, which would explain at once her chafing sense of entrapment and her daisy-fresh skin. Kunis gives a smart, appealing performance as the put-upon Amy, even if her distinctive physical attributes—smooth olive complexion, long silken tresses, hazel eyes the size and shape of an animated doe’s—don’t really suit her to the role of the sexless, self-neglecting schlemiel she’s asked to be in the movie’s first half. At least Amy’s makeover montage, when her two gal pals exhort her to ransack her closet and hit the clubs, is believable in its brevity and effectiveness: After all, she looked plenty hot before they got started.
Eventually Amy’s brutish lout leaves in a huff to shack up with his live-webcam-only girlfriend. Amy is left to balance single parenting with a sales job at a coffee distribution company with a smug know-nothing boss (Clark Duke). Amy’s stress comes to a head at a PTA meeting when the alpha-girl president of the association, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate, enjoyably licking her chops in a too-broadly-conceived role), tries to shame her into taking charge of the next onerous school fundraising project. Bruised and battered after a long day of parenting-related pratfalls, Amy tells off the roomful of judgmental mothers and heads for the nearest bar. Eventually she’s joined by fellow PTA walkouts Carla (Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell), and together the three get so trashed they wind up vandalizing the local grocery store in a cereal-scarfing, cardboard standee–defacing rampage scored to Icona Pop’s “I Love It.”
The rebellion that ensues, led by these three suddenly tough-acting, slow-motion-walking denizens of Bad Mom Nation, serves as a kind of reverse allegory of feminism, an expression of the narrowest possible meaning of that term. Amy, Kiki, and Carla want to wrest away the apparently emperorlike power of the PTA presidency from the bullying Gwendolyn, thereby inspiring all judged-feeling moms to overthrow their judgey oppressors. There are also personal demons to be vanquished, genuinely bad habits to overcome—Amy really shouldn’t, by any standard, be completing her kids’ homework projects—and not incidentally, a fine widowed dad at school to flirt with (the hunky yet wooden Jay Fernandez).
But Bad Moms’ essential message—to the extent it has one, beyond the thesis that partying with your besties rules—is that, rather than overturn the systems that cordon off “moms” from the rest of society by attempting to keep them at once as sacrosanct and as powerless as possible, women should look for the evil within the women around them—that the problem is other women, who seek their oppression for personal reasons of vengeance or jealousy. The role of structural sexism or—forgive me, but sometimes it’s the right word—the patriarchy in making good-enough motherhood in America all but impossible goes unexamined.
Fairly late in the film, in a few short scenes, The Wire’s Wendell Pierce appears as the principal of this mythical school in which an Evita-like PTA president controls everything from the lineup of the girls’ soccer team to the school’s hiring and firing. Bad Moms wasted a real opportunity in casting an actor this capable in a part this small and substance-free. Pierce’s principal rarely speaks at all, serving mainly as a bemused head-shaker at the ladies’ acrimonious infighting. Rather than create a straw-woman villainess like Applegate’s character, the creators could have thought through the relationship of the school’s female power hierarchy to Pierce’s character, or found another worthy antagonist outside the confines of the henhouse.
And instead of the middle-of-the-road milquetoast played by Kunis, I might rather have followed the life story of the boisterous, filthy-mouthed Carla, the latest in a venerated Hollywood lineup of slutty best friends. (I’m thinking of characters like A.J. Langer’s Rayanne in My So-Called Life, Elizabeth Daily’s Loryn in Valley Girl, and Ari Graynor’s Caroline in Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.) Hahn’s wild, often-improvised-seeming bad behavior brushes up against some real maternal taboos. When the three friends drunkenly confide their worst parenting moments to one another, only Carla’s approach anything like actual neglect—and thus only Carla’s made me laugh. If, like The Hangover, Bad Moms spawns sequels, I request a chapter told from Carla’s point of view—perhaps written or directed by a member of the group this movie purports by its very title to champion.