If the target demo for the Netflix film Otherhood is self-pitying mothers of adult children, then maybe it will find its sweet spot. Anyone outside that group is likely to be frustrated by this inane would-be comedy that brings together then entirely wastes three superb actresses.
The first film directed by Cindy Chupack, best known as a writer and producer of Sex and the City, Otherhood is deadening and predictable, with a cloying title that hints at how strained the script will be.
The story is set off when three women, who have known each other since their sons were 6 years old, meet for their annual Mother’s Day brunch and moan about how those sons, now living in New York City, neglect them. They are no longer mothers, they say, but others. (Ugh.) They are also a trio of stereotypes. Felicity Huffman plays Helen, who dresses elegantly, takes her loving second husband for granted and refuses to age. Helen doesn’t look silly or plastic-y; she looks like an actress with great hair, makeup and styling. Angela Bassett is Carol, a slightly frumpy, homebody widow. You can see her makeover coming. Like Helen, she has a huge, fabulous house in Poughkeepsie. There’s not much comedy here, but there is a bit of house porn. Patricia Arquette is Gillian, the most down-to-earth of the three. It’s a credit to this dream cast that they don’t sleepwalk through their tired roles, but bring as much energy as they can.
After a few too many mimosas at brunch, the women decide to take a trip to the city to make the boys pay attention. Those boys flew the nest long ago — they are roughly 27 years old now — but the film positions the visit as a cute antic the neglected moms deserve, rather than an intrusion into grown-ups’ lives.
Originally scheduled for release in April, nearer Mother’s Day, Otherhood was postponed after news broke about the college admissions bribery scandal, in which Huffman was accused of paying to improve her daughter’s SAT score. (Huffman has pleaded guilty but has yet to be sentenced.)
The delay is understandable. It wouldn’t have been the best look at that moment to have Huffman say, as Helen, “‘Mother’ is not just a noun, it’s a verb. It requires action!”
But an earlier release wouldn’t have made any difference. Helen’s blunt line suggests the clunky, flat dialogue in the screenplay, which Chupack reworked from a script by Mark Andrus, based on a 2008 British novel, Whatever Makes You Happy.
Bassett has the least-bad role, simply because her character changes the most. Her son, Matt (Sinqua Walls), is a womanizing art director who leaves Carol on her own in his giant, sparkling Tribeca loft. That gives her a chance to go out with her friends, buy a fabulous, figure-hugging dress and have her prim bun turned into flowing curls. Now glam, she talks her way into an exclusive business party at a club, after her son has definitely told her she’s not invited. Really? Even as wish fulfillment, this is ludicrous.
Huffman’s character is the most absurd. She knows that her son, Paul (Jake Lacy), is gay. It’s no secret; he lives in yet another giant, sleek apartment with his boyfriend and two other gay men. But Helen is bent out of shape, after all these years, that he never actually came out to her, and furious when she learns he did come out to his father, her unfaithful ex-husband. Paul calls her out on her self-centeredness, but the film stays on her side. Against the odds, Huffman expertly walks that line, so we see Helen’s flaws without turning against her.
Gillian’s son, Daniel (Jake Hoffman), is a struggling writer whose heart has been broken by his cheating girlfriend, a problem that Gillian tries to fix. Arquette has the most underwritten role as the nudging, interfering mama, and even she can’t do much with it.
Declan Quinn’s cinematography brings a crisp, colorful look to the many Manhattan locations, and to all those high-end interiors. The camera mostly sits there like a staid observer in the middle distance, but at least it’s looking at pretty things. Kara Lindstrom’s production design is skillfully done, from the gleaming, modern apartments to Daniel’s cluttered, dingy little basement space. And the costumes by Patricia Field and Molly Rogers are eye-catching and just right, from Helen’s sophisticated dresses to Gillian’s colorful, flowy blouses.
Despite that glossy, aspirational look, Otherhood is definitely not Sex and the City: Moms Edition. The story swerves away from at least one cliche: The women don’t fall into bed with desirable men, as the plot stays focused on motherhood and female friendship. The only credible part of those themes, though, comes in the early brunch scene, when the women discuss how great it is that after decades of friendship they don’t have to lie to each other, especially about their ages.
This misadventure of a project is a blip on the actresses’ résumés. Bassett, of course, played a much cooler mother in Black Panther (think about how odd it is that a mythical queen from Wakanda is more believable than Carol). Oscar winner Arquette currently has two Emmy nominations for limited series, as lead actress on Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora — she may be unbeatable there — and supporting actress for Hulu’s The Act. And Huffman deserves a post-scandal career. She’s too good not to go on acting.
Maybe on the page Otherhood sounded as if it could be frothy fun. If only.
Production companies: Mandalay Pictures, Welle Entertainment
Cast: Angela Bassett, Patricia Arquette, Felicity Huffman, Jake Lacy, Jake Hoffman, Sinqua Walls
Director: Cindy Chupack
Screenwriters: Mark Andrus, Cindy Chupack
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, Katie Mustard, Cathy Schulman
Director of photography: Declan Quinn
Production designer: Kara Lindstrom
Costume designer: Patricia Field, Molly Rogers
Editors: Sunny Hodge, Kevin Tent
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Casting: Lindsay Graham, Jessica Kelly, Mary Vernieu