Thursday, 9 November 2017

Movie Review: Bad Moms 2 (2017)

For as much derision as the practice gets, I don’t have any major issue with the whole sequel/franchise/cinematic universe thing in Hollywood. I find it interesting to see what films hold up to the original, and I’m always surprised to see films that manage to exceed what came before it like John Wick: Chapter 2 and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Today’s film, however, is of a brand that does make me tilt my head. It was a little over a year ago that I looked the first Bad Moms, a film that I still think people didn’t give enough credit to for the kind of film it was. Having this little amount of time between installments is usually the sign of a cash-in “let’s just repeat what we did before” sequel. Combine that with this being a Christmas film released in November, because doing it in December would’ve made too much sense, and this has a high probability of being less-than-adequate. Still, given how impressed I was with the first film and seeing how some equally impressive cinematic follow-ups this year, I’m holding onto some hope that this might be decent. For once, I will not be pleased if I’m proven wrong. This is Bad Moms 2 (also known as A Bad Moms Christmas).

The plot: With Christmas only a week away, overworked mothers Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) decide to once again stop just being under-appreciated workers and actually enjoy the holiday for themselves for a change. However, when their respective mothers Ruth (Christine Baranski), Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and Isis (Susan Sarandon) show up for Christmas, it seems that that goal will be even tougher than they realized.

Kunis continues to shine as the median between two extremes, and that’s even with Bell being severely toned down in terms of worrying naiveté. Hahn as Carla gets the most development out of the main three, while still sticking to her rather lax attitude to the world, and the three’s chemistry together is still amazingly tight. Jay Hernandez is still the impossibly perfect boyfriend, Oona Laurence unfortunately doesn’t get as much screen time as she should by this point, and Christina Applegate returns for a cameo that honestly doesn’t make much sense, given how the first film ended. As for the new cast members… oh geez. Baranski is given an absolute cow of a mother to work with, and while her dialogue is kind of vile in its own way, she still manages to make it palatable. Not entirely sure how, but between all the cringe and wanting for her to get decked for the holidays, it works. Hines is a little too good as Kiki’s insanely close mother, channelling naive batshit but making it work in much the same way Bell did last time. Sarandon as a woman named Isis, complete with the joke that everyone reading this has already thought of in their heads, is easily the sanest of the grandmothers and she ends up serving as the mediator… while still getting her own troubling quirks in. Also, Justin Hartley as a male stripper induces the biggest mindfrag of the year so far. How the hell does something this clearly perverted come across as this sweet? Bloody hell, his chemistry with Hahn is inhuman, much like his… key asset, let’s say.

Pardon me if this review turns out even more incoherent than usual; I might still be a bit delirious from how much I laughed with this movie. While it isn’t tapping from the same ‘trials of the modern mother’ stream as before when it comes to Amy, Kiki and Carla, their banter is still top-notch and even when it’s obvious that they’re going off-script (there’s so much corpsing in this thing, it’s unbelievable), it’s still extremely fun to sit through. Once their mothers enter the picture, though, things take a turn for the cringe. Alongside the belly laughs, I can’t remember a film that made me cringe this often or this hard. Most of that is on the back of Ruth, using pretty much every scene she has to spit venom at her daughter in a way that takes Yuletide dysfunction to embarrassing levels. I rarely get into this style of comedy, and while I wasn’t exactly laughing when Ruth was being 31 flavours of awful, it induced the kind of awkwardness that works not only for a Christmas film but for a good Christmas comedy too. Of course, not all of the awkwardness is down to her; Sandy seriously pushes all the boundaries, not the least of which being the boundaries of human sanity. As worrying as it is to see a grown-ass woman being like this, her scenes with Bell are just too good to pass up, intentional cluelessness be damned.

What can’t be damned so easily, though, is that feeling one usually gets from a quickly-made sequel; mainly, how does this flow with the original? Well, outside of Applegate regressing a little too far from where we last saw her, it’s a rather mixed bag as far as what we’re supposed to remember. A reset button has definitely been pressed, given the main premise of taking Christmas back and actually having fun with it similar to the original, but the main cast have already gotten past that point. Or, at least, I thought they had. There’s also the very loose plot this time around too, sticking just to counting down till Christmas as a throughline and not much else. While the individual set pieces are still funny, there’s not a whole lot bringing them all together outside of the general theme of Christmas. Knowing how the conflict between Amy and Gwendolyn carried the last film, this feels out of sorts. This isn’t helped by how it pretty much abandons that sense of mother self-empowerment that made the first film feel as solid as it did. Its ghost lingers around the narrative through the main three making Christmas fun for them rather than just everyone else, but it takes the backseat to them bickering with their own mothers.

So, we’re clearly dealing with a different animal with this sequel; if it isn’t empowerment, what is this film aiming for? One of the main conceits of the original was that being ‘the perfect mother’ was not only impossible but requires way too much effort that largely goes unnoticed. Here, we end up getting a better idea of where that idea comes from, being passed down through the generations. As much as I bash the grandmothers here, from the spiteful to the psychotic, them in comparison to their daughters raises some interesting points about how much that original ideal gets distilled the further down it’s passed. This is especially true when we hear from Ruth about her mother, in a move that doesn’t exactly create sympathy but at least gives a good idea as to why she is the way she is. What also helps the general unhealthiness is the fact that none of it is ultimately left unchecked. Real, paradigm-changing confrontations take place, all resolved in a jarringly heartwarming moment. I say jarring because it shares a film with an entire scene dedicated to waxing a guy’s nuts… yeah. Like I said, Carla and the stripper’s meet-cute is bizarre and yet strangely effective. Regardless, through all of this, the film presents that ideal of the perfect mother as not only unattainable, but antiquated as fuck. What it jettisons from the original film, it makes up for by digging even deeper into the same central idea and not delivering empowerment but closure and just a touch of catharsis. "Catharsis" here being a kind way of saying that seeing Ruth lose at dodgeball was immensely satisfying.

All in all, I’m quite pleased at how well this sequel turned out. The returning cast are as great as ever, the new faces do wonders with incredibly fiddly characters, the film’s joke-to-positive-response ratio is higher than a lot of films I’ve seen this year, and while there are definite problems with its overall story and connection to the barely-a-year-old original, it still carries that remarkably astute approach on what it means to be a ‘good mom’ that leads to some solid dramatic moments. I don’t know if this is going to go down as well for others as it did for me, but frankly, I’m too happy to really care how little acclaim this film is getting otherwise. It’s at least a month too early, but it’s a good Christmas film and one I’m sure the rest of the crop will have to live up to. It’s better than Manchester By The Sea, as whatever feelings of awkwardness occur here (and they do, all the goddamn time) only make the humour and drama hit that much harder; all of a sudden, I think I’m starting to understand why this whole cringe comedy thing works in the first place. However, as deliriously entertaining as this is, it doesn’t hold up as well to the more complex characterization and powerful delivery of Girls Trip.

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