We’ve gotten awfully good these days at finding ways to make more money from holidays, and director Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, The Princess Diaries) seems to have decided that his particular niche is doing it through film. Perhaps some people in 2010 celebrated Valentine’s Day by seeing Marshall’s Valentine’s Day, and I suppose it’s possible that rather than watching the ball drop, a contingent of introverts celebrated New Year’s Eve 2011 from a movie theater showing New Year’s Eve. But on the second Sunday in May this year, you might want to steer clear of the theater and stick with dinner or flowers. Or maybe just find yourself a greeting card that says, “This Mother’s Day, I’ll demonstrate my love for you by promising to never ask you to watch Mother’s Day.”
In the vein of Marshall’s other holiday non-classics, Mother’s Day features overlapping lives and storylines and a broad cast of famous people who probably owe him money and less famous people who have bills to pay and think Raising Helen had some redeeming qualities. The movie is set in some version of Atlanta that is full of wealthy white people who spend all their time exercising and/or watching the Home Shopping Network. In fairness, all of the exercise does help explain why all of the mothers in this movie are constantly in cute workout clothes and look like they’ve never eaten an extra cupcake, let alone given birth to a child.
As you might imagine, Mother’s Day tells the stories of mothers (Julie Roberts, Jennifer Aniston), other mothers who are also daughters (Kate Hudson, Britt Robertson), and a widowed father who has to figure out how to fill the role of “mother” (Jason Sudeikis). He also has to figure out how to fill the role of “mature adult” so that he can buy tampons for his 16-year-old daughter. This terrifies him, although he spends far less time than I did wondering where his daughter has been getting tampons in the year since her mother died. But I digress.
The various stories are focused on issues with which audiences can connect – co-parenting with an ex-spouse, trying relationships with parents, balancing life and career, grieving while parenting, etc. In the right hands, these conflicts can be not just relatable, but also successfully mined for comedic material. These are not the right hands, however, and in Mother’s Day, every sub-plot eventually goes so far off the rails that any hope the audience might have had for connecting with these characters evaporates.
But if the central issue with Mother’s Day were that the characters aren’t relatable, we could all shrug and move on. Unfortunately, that’s not the biggest problem with this movie. The biggest problem is also not that Jennifer Aniston gets a pep talk from a clown, or that a baby is the key to stand-up comedy success, or that there is a scene with a runaway RV that is so painful it feels like a bad SNL parody. The biggest problem with Mother’s Day is that it fails spectacularly in its attempts to address and find the humor in bigotry. Most overtly problematic is a pair of racist, homophobic, RV-driving, American-flag-celebrating, baby-boomer parents (a lazy stereotype in its own right). The dialogue and humor in these scenes was probably intended to be sharp and edgy, but it falls well short of that goal. It’s just cringe-inducing. The uncomfortable moments also aren’t limited to that sub-plot. Credit where it’s due, Mother’s Day is equal opportunity offensive: race, sexuality, and size are all in-bounds for humorless one-liners and slapstick gags.
Not all bad movies are created equal. There are movies that are bad and fun (Vampire Academy). There are also movies that are bad and not that fun, but which aren’t hurting anyone (Jem and the Holograms). But Mother’s Day’s version of bad is especially frustrating, even beyond the fact that it manages to be both boring and offensive. Because it stars mostly high-profile women, when it fails at the box office and gets panned by critics – both of which seem pretty inevitable – it’s going to be one more reason people use not to put women at the forefront in movies. And that’s a garbage Mother’s Day gift for everyone.