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All heck breaks loose when a trio of churchgoing stay-at-home mothers take a rare leap into nightlife in Moms’ Night Out. The second feature from the Erwin Brothers (Jon and Andrew) is the kind of film that spikes its wholesomeness with just enough wild to appear modern while holding tight to tradition. Through its central characters it commiserates with hardworking mothers, and through just about everyone else in the film, it pays tribute to them.
Having focused on abortion in the drama October Baby, the directors dial down the faith-based angle several notches as they aim for comic hijinks. The comedy tends toward the broad and frenetic, but there are nicely observed bits too. The material is designed to resonate especially with young parents and multigenerational families for whom small doses of nonjudgmental Christian sermonizing aren’t anathema. Opening wide on Mother’s Day weekend, against the raunch of Neighbors and the animation of Legends of Oz, the Sony specialty-label release might prove just the après-brunch ticket for moms and their entourages, and social media buzz could boost the picture’s staying power in smaller markets.
The story, decidedly more caper than parable, is grounded in a recognizable sense of maternal angst, albeit one that’s explored in only the most superficial ways. As young mother of three Allyson, Sarah Drew is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Attempting to find a sense of worth as a mommy blogger, she posts mostly self-deprecating rants: She’s a clean freak, a germaphobe, and a hopelessly helpful type.
To avoid a meltdown, Allyson puts a Groupon to use and enlists her best friend, Izzy (Andrea Logan White), mother of toddler twins, and their pastor’s wife, Sondra (Patricia Heaton), who’s dealing with the demands of a teenage daughter (Sammi Hanratty), for a night out. Donning heels she hasn’t worn in years, Allyson and her pals head to fancy restaurant Chez Magique, where a harpist contributes to the “aura” and the manager is called “the visionary.” The screenplay, credited to Jon Erwin and Andrea Nasfell, has an ear for the way people talk, at least in sitcoms, and an eye for such everyday annoyances as uncooperative automatic towel dispensers and pretentious types.
One reservation snafu and a few missed connections later, the women find themselves searching for a missing baby in a tattoo parlor, involved in a car chase (David Hunt, Heaton’s real-life husband and fellow exec producer, plays a Cockney cabbie), and finally hauled into jail, where unbelievable comic mix-ups can always be sorted out unbelievably.
The evening’s shares of ineptitude and haplessness are divided among the genders: While babysitting the kids, the men — Allyson’s supportive, patient hubby (Sean Astin, low-key and likable), his mildly unconventional buddy (producer Kevin Downes) and Izzy’s absurdly skittish husband (Robert Amaya) — run a parallel collision course of wackily unwelcome events. The forced hysteria runs out of steam with multiple arrests, which include an accidental Tasering for good measure.
Country star and occasional actor Trace Adkins, playing a biker tattoo artist who comes to the women’s rescue, cuts through the delirium with his honeyed twang and droll line readings. His naturalness is hard to maintain, though, when it falls on his broad shoulders to deliver a climactic one-on-one sermonette to the self-doubting Allyson. Stating the movie’s theme, he invokes Jesus as well as his mama, and urges Allyson to be kind to herself — a valuable, compassionate lesson, to be sure. But it’s at this point that people start calling one another “girl” and the celebration of motherhood threatens to turn mawkish.
It never quite does. Neither does it locate an emotional vein. Without creating fully fleshed characters or truly involving conflict, the film aims instead to provoke howls of recognition and tears of gratitude by appealing to very basic notions of parent-child love — what the executive producers call the “craziness of the joy of parenting.”
Like the movie as a whole, Drew (of Grey’s Anatomy and a short arc on Mad Men, as the hapless wife of Sal Romano) overdoes Allyson’s frenzy, straining for a Millennial Lucy Ricardo effect. She has a relatable quality, though, and a believable rapport with White and Heaton’s characters, both well played within the constraints of the scenario.
Perhaps as intended, the Birmingham, Alabama, locations lend little in the way of defining flavor to the action; the unnamed setting feels like a generic American small city. As a whole, the production feels suited to the small screen. Its distinguishing visual characteristic is the directors’ use of illustrations, graphics and onscreen text messages to propel the story, which they do well, especially at a book-club scene that combines mobile tech with Allyson’s self-consciously wry voiceover: “Reading books,” the harried mom says, “is something I aspire to do.”
Opens: Friday, May 9 (Sony/TriStar Pictures)
Production: Affirm Films and Provident Films, with Pure Flix Entertainment and Four Boys Entertainment
Cast: Sarah Drew, Sean Astin, Patricia Heaton, Andrea Logan White, Trace Adkins, David Hunt, Robert Amaya, Harry Shum, Jr., Sammi Hanratty, Alex Kendrick, Kevin Downes, Anjelah Johnson, Abbie Cobb, Manwell Reyes
Directors: Jon Erwin, Andrew Erwin
Screenwriters: Jon Erwin, Andrea Nasfell
Producers: Kevin Downes, Andrew Erwin, Jonathan Erwin, Daryl Lefever, Michael Scott, David A.R. White, Russell Wolfe, Elizabeth Travis
Executive producers: Patricia Heaton, David Hunt
Director of photography: Kristopher S. Kimlin
Production designer: Mark Garner
Music: Marc Fantini, Steffan Fantini
Costume designer: Anna Redmon
Editors: Andrew Erwin, Jonathan Olive
PG; 98 min.
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