Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have spun ongoing box office gold out of the enduring power of having inappropriate characters say and do inappropriate things at shocking moments. When you look at how the Bad Moms films work as opposed to, say, the Hangover movies (which were written by Lucas & Moore), it is clear that there are certain types of jokes that these guys use over and over. But dismissing this series as nothing more than a gender-flipped rehash of their earlier hit misses the point, and while I can’t say I love these movies, they are incredibly specific in the way they’re engineered, and I understand why people go nuts for them.
Any time you make a sequel to a surprise hit, the operative word seems to be “more,” and A
Bad Moms Christmas is certainly more. It’s strange timing to see this and Daddy’s Home 2 both coming out within a few weeks, because they are identical in terms of strategy. In both cases, you’re getting a holiday-themed sequel and the hook is adding big stars to play the parents of the first film’s stars, and the success of the venture will depend on just how enamored the audience is with those big new stars.
Like the first film, if you’re watching this hoping for bold narrative moves or expertly plotted twists, you will find none. These movies are incredibly obvious in construction, and the last thing you’re going to be is surprised. Instead, they depend entirely on chemistry, and they struck gold when they put Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Kathryn Hahn together. All three are gifted comic performers, and they’ve each honed their personas over dozens of movies and TV shows.
Bell plays Kiki, a tightly-wound little weirdo, and Mila Kunis narrates as Amy, who frames the entire story by telling us how she ruined Christmas. As in the first film, Hahn is the one given the biggest, broadest material as Carla, and it’s because she is a force of nature when she is given room to play. I’ve watched all three of them work live on various sets over the years, and there’s a way of working that has become popular with lots of comedy writers and directors. Basically, you have to be nimble and able to improvise, and you have to be willing to fail in order to make something really work. All three of them are great at it, but Hahn is one of those people who is always surprising, and I’ve watched her destroy the biggest stars working right now.
They’re such big comedic presences that they had to go big to find actors who could trade punches with the three leads, and once again, they struck gold. Christine Baranski does “haughty” like nobody’s business, and she makes the stereotypical type-A megabitch control freak character feel like a real person — brittle and scathing on the outside but with a genuine heart in there somewhere. She’s aided by Peter Gallagher as her husband. He doesn’t have a lot to do, but he absolutely kills it when he’s called upon. Susan Sarandon plays Isis, Carla’s mother, and she plays it as a smiling monster, totally unconcerned with anyone else. Sarandon, who has always been a terrific comic actor, knows she can’t go bigger than Hahn, so instead she finds a way to make a low-key complement to the energy that Hahn brings to things. Blissfully wasted at all times, Isis is all of Carla’s bad habits and none of the decency that balances it out. The stealth killer here is Cheryl Hines, playing Sandy, Kiki’s way-too-clingy mother. It’s pretty clear why Kiki is such a quiet freakshow, and the two of them find some really weird, crazy notes to play together.
When every scene is designed to be THE BIGGEST CRAZIEST DIRTIEST COMEDY SET PIECE OF ALL TIME, the effect becomes somewhat numbing, but these films are designed like sledgehammers. When you finally make it to the closing credits, with the entire cast (including many of the day players) dancing and singing, it’s clear that these are meant to be parties for big groups of people to go see together. These are aimed primarily at women though, and one of the things that makes these very different from the Hangover films is that there’s nothing nihilistic about this comedy. Each of the women has to find a new way to relate to their mother by the end of the film, working out the defining issues of their relationships. Kiki has to convince her mother to give her more space and stop smothering her. Amy has to convince her mother to stop criticizing her and ignoring the things that are important to her. And Carla has to find out if Isis actually cares for her at all, or if she just sees her as someone to occasionally soak for some money. That healing, and the idea that growth is something that is not only possible but important for your overall happiness, is a little perfunctory, but it’s important to set these films apart and make them more than “just” gross-out comedies driven by women instead of men.
Justin Hartley is smack dab in the middle of his second season of This Is Us, where he plays a Hollywood actor struggling to be respected, and how he handles that heat between seasons will be interesting to watch. He shows up here in a supporting role as Ty, an exotic dancer, and the strongest scene in the film is probably a romantic comedy meet-cute that plays out as Carla waxes his entire nether region. I think a lot of great comedy comes from playing the flaws that make us human. When Chris Hemsworth appeared in Vacation, I kept hearing pre-release buzz about how he was going to steal the entire movie with his scenes. In the end, I thought he was game, but the entire joke with this character was, “Hey, not only is he really good-looking and successful, but he also happens to have a gigantic penis! Isn’t that hilarious?”, and honestly, the answer is, “Not really.” Hartley’s role here is the same thing. His entire character boils down to “gigantic penis,” and there’s not a lot you can do with that comedically. When you put a hat on a hat on a hat, that’s just too many hats, and it strands Hartley for the most part.
The film feels like it was made in one long manic weekend. Technically, it’s fine, but there’s nothing memorable about how it looks. They could easily keep cranking these out, and it won’t be surprising to see them make Bad Grandmas and Bad Dads and Bad Kids and they’ll make one set at Halloween and another one set at New Year’s and they’ll all go to Hawaii in one film, and STX will keep it up until there’s not another dollar to be wrung out of it. As long as they lean on the cast, they’ll be fine. Uninspired, but fine. Expect that, and you’ll likely get your money’s worth.