'Mother's Day': Film Review

A movie not even a mother could love.
4/29/2016

Garry Marshall's latest holiday-pegged ensemble comedy stars Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson and Jason Sudeikis.

Even if you haven't seen Garry Marshall's last two holiday-pegged efforts — Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, with their generous smattering of stars, sub-sitcom one-liners and shameless heartstring yanking — it won't take long to figure out what kind of movie Mother's Day is. The signs are there in the first few minutes: perky pop song over the opening credits, hokey voiceover, people rushing through morning routines (no one is ever on time in these comedies), ill-advised dialogue (when a woman chides her young son for not wearing underwear, he replies, exasperated: "It's called free balling, Mom!").

Mother’s Day is bad from the start, and it doesn't get better.

Part of the problem is structural. Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve came equipped with teeming big-name casts, spread out across various vignettes; hacky and dimwitted as the films were, they never stranded you with anyone for too long (not into Katherine Heigl as a lovelorn caterer? Here's Ashton Kutcher and Lea Michele stuck in an elevator!). Mother's Day features far fewer characters and subplots, stretched thin over a punishingly protracted 118 minutes; there’s no buffer between you and the movie's ineptitude.

Jennifer Aniston plays Sandy, a harried Atlanta divorcee and mother of two whose ex (Timothy Olyphant) suddenly elopes with a young bombshell (Shay Mitchell). Sandy's BFF Jesse (Kate Hudson) is raising a son with husband Russell (Aasif Mandvi), but hasn't yet informed her conservative Texan parents Flo and Earl (Margo Martindale and Robert Pine) because, well, Russell is of Indian origin and Flo and Earl are racist rednecks. Jesse's sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke), meanwhile, has told Mom and Dad she has a fiancé named Steve when in reality she has a wife named Max (Flo and Earl are homophobic, too).

Jason Sudeikis is Bradley, a widower whose wife, a marine, was killed in combat (we see her briefly, played by Jennifer Garner, in an old video). Their kids, Rachel (Jessi Case) and Vicky (Ella Anderson, who seemed to have more fun as Kristen Bell's daughter in The Boss), try their best to tolerate Bradley's overzealous soccer coaching and cluelessness about menstruation.

Julia Roberts (still loyal to her Pretty Woman director after all these years) plays Miranda, a home shopping network mogul, who, despite her supposed millions, sports a conspicuously cheap-looking wig. Miranda has a secret that involves Kristin (rising star Britt Robertson, bland), a young mom who’s not sure she wants to marry the father of her baby, an ostensibly talented aspiring British comic named Zack (Jack Whitehall). Given the dire stand-up routine Zack performs in one scene, you can hardly blame Kristin for having cold feet.

As you can guess, these different narrative strands will converge on the titular holiday. Along the way, there's a meet-cute, a re-meet-cute, a wedding, a medical crisis, a runaway RV, a few reconciliations, several breakthroughs and a climactic selfie. Hector Elizondo shows up, as he always does in Marshall's films, for an in-joke with Roberts that may make hardcore Pretty Woman fans smile but is an ominous sign for any self-respecting screenplay.

And, boy oh boy, that screenplay. Written by Anya Kochoff Romano, Matt Walker and Tom Hines (the last two of whom are frequent Marshall collaborators), the dialogue in Mother's Day is so colorless it's like white noise. (Why it seems so hard for mainstream big-screen comedy writers to pen even minimally amusing things for actors to say is a mystery given the wealth of wit on TV, from HBO's Veep and Girls to Netflix's Master of None and Love and beyond. Turn on the tube, folks!)

The biggest laugh in Mother's Day comes when Sandy's son mistakenly wears his lion costume backwards in a school play, the tail protruding obscenely from his crotch. That's as good as it gets, though the movie picks up momentarily when Flo and Earl pay their daughters a surprise visit and find themselves face to face with the Indian and lesbian significant others they didn't know existed ("Are you the house boy?" Earl asks Russell when he first happens upon him in the kitchen). But the filmmakers' failure to think their comic situations through, let alone locate any unexpected notes in them, defeats the movie at every turn: Not for a moment do you believe willowy, patrician Jesse and Gabi (Hudson and Chalke) were raised by such brazen yokels, and the bit that has them trying to pass off Gabi's wife Max (Cameron Esposito) as her "business partner" is so 20 years ago it borders on offensive.  

John Debney's twinkly score and Marshall's flat, barely-there direction are about what you expect them to be — and frankly, no one goes to see Mother's Day for the innovative camerawork. The quartet of stars is the main attraction, though they're not playing people as much as broad variations on their own screen (and off-screen) personas: Aniston is warm, self-deprecating and a little bit sad; Roberts is imperious, but with a heart of gold; Hudson is a bohemian-yuppie princess; Sudeikis is dorky-cool, a smart-ass with a soft center. Predictably, Martindale, that miracle of an actress, has sharper timing and more presence than any of her co-stars.

Over the years, Marshall has proven to be an unapologetic peddler of wish-fulfillment fantasies, which he often packages in slick, schmaltzy stories of women being civilized or corrected (Pretty Woman and The Princess Diaries, most famously). But he's capable of good things: the tart, fizzy first half of Overboard, for example, and much of Frankie and Johnny, still his most mature, winning movie. Even some of his glaring misfires had spark and integrity (like Georgia Rule, with its stormy, charismatic Lindsay Lohan performance and strange brew of slapstick and serious themes). What's most dispiriting about Mother's Day is how little life there is in it, how difficult the film is to connect to despite the inherent relatability of the material. It's a movie not even a mother could love.

Distributor: Open Road
Production companies: Rice Films, Gulfstream Pictures
Director: Garry Marshall
Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Jason Sudeikis, Britt Robertson, Timothy Olyphant, Hector Elizondo, Jack Whitehall, Margo Martindale, Shay Mitchell, Aasif Mandvi
Writers: Anya Kochoff Romano, Matt Walker, Tom Hines, Lily Hollander (story)
Producers: Mike Karz, Wayne Rice, Daniel Diamond, Brandt Andersen, Howard Burd, Mark Disalle
Executive producers: Kevin Frakes, Ankur Rungta, Matthew Hooper, Jared D. Underwood, Danny Mandel, Rodger May, Fred Grimm, Bill Heavener, Scott Lipsky, Leon Corcos, Deborah E. Chausse, William Bindley

Director of photography: Charles Minsky
Production designer: Missy Stewart
Composer: John Debney
Editors: Bruce Green, Robert Malina
Casting: Gail Goldberg, Barbara J. McCarthy

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes

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