(On Cable TV, July 2018) Considering the stress and obligations that the Christmas season places on mothers, it’s no wonder that A Bad Moms Christmas would take on the season to be merry as its follow-up excuse to show moms behaving badly. (It’s even a mini-trend, considering that Daddy’s Home 2 mines the same holiday and intergenerational issues.) While Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn remain the lead trio of the film, the added interest here comes from seeing their moms (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines, and Susan Sarandon) descend upon their hometown for the holidays. The themes of the film consequently shift from women/men relationships to mothers/daughters, magnified by the pressures to make Christmas as perfect as possible. A Bad Moms Christmas is formulaic, uncomplicated, intensely predictable in at least two ways (following the conventions of both R-rated women’s comedies and Christmas movies) and not particularly difficult to watch thanks to the actresses involved. The direction zips by, relying once again on snappy editing and pop music. There really isn’t much more to say about it—fans of the first film will be fine with the follow-up, enthusiasts of women-behaving-badly R-rated comedies will get their six-month fix, and nobody will remember the film next year. (Even as a Christmas movie, I don’t see A Bad Moms Christmas as having any staying power—it’s far too dependent on the non-Christmas prequel.) I watched it, I laughed a few times, and that’s it.
(On DVD, March 2018) About as generic a romantic comedy as it’s possible to put together, A Lot like Love is familiar and forgettable, but not necessarily terrible. Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet do well as a couple that repeatedly meets over a seven-year period, eventually discovering that they belong together through personal failures and growth. The nineties sequences already feel nostalgic, not to mention the early dot-com era material. Kal Penn shows up in a small role, as does Kathryn Hahn in a very brief and early role that nonetheless adds to her later persona of playing sex-crazed characters. The episodic, time-skipping structure of the film is equally interesting and frustrating, as we know early on that romantic frustration will be maintained until the story catches back up to present time. On the other hand, the film is decently scripted (witness the mini-romances going on in the background during the seven years of the story) and can depend on capable leads. Sure, the various plot threads are predictable but seeing the film from a perspective twelve years later, it’s a reminder that Hollywood studios have gone almost entirely out of the mid-budget romantic comedy genre. Seeing the film in 2018 is almost inevitably less repetitive than having seen it in 2005 … by lack of similar examples. Still, let’s not fool ourselves: A Lot like Love remains a generic romantic comedy, and it fades away as soon as the final credits roll. You won’t begrudge the time spent watching it … as long as you don’t have a big queue of other movies to watch.
(Video on Demand, November 2016) Being a mother has always been hard, but it’s even more impossible today given the weight of expectations that society place upon them. Be a good mom, a caring wife, a valued member of the community, etc. all at once! Bad Moms takes on a premise of “what if one of them suddenly stopped caring?” Freed from expectations, a husband or even the ability to care, our protagonist (Mila Kunis, decently funny but arguably not frumpy enough) allies herself with two other moms and goes on a rampage of indulgence. It’s sometimes very funny (the highlight sequence is a raucous grocery store mayhem to the tune of Icona Pop’s “I Love it”), sometimes a bit annoying (don’t get me started on the clownish Bad Dads of the film) and usually at the limits of believability. Unfortunately, the last act of the film is hampered by a sudden excess of sentimentality, the unsatisfactory resolution of a few romantic plotlines and a general lowering of energy. But when it works, it’s not bad—Kunis is often overshadowed by Kirsten Bell as a mousy bad mom, and especially Kathryn Hahn as an uninhibited divorcee. (Further adding to Hahn’s deviant screen persona.) While Bad Moms doesn’t quite take advantage of its own opportunities, it feels grounded in some kind of current reality, and does hit a number of high notes on its way to a middling conclusion. Plus: Social topical relevancy alongside the cheap intoxication jokes.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’m not sure how or why Kathryn Hahn ended up associated with raunchy comedy in my mind (although watching her roles as borderline-deviant in Bad Words and This is Where I Leave You probably explains it), but it may have led to wrong assumptions in watching Afternoon Delight. Billed as a low-key comedy in which a frustrated suburban mom changes her life after befriending a stripper, Afternoon Delight ends up being a somewhat miserable drama in which a well-off mother uses then discards a sex worker to rekindle her marriage. This sounds worse than it is, but the truth is that there’s a surprisingly reprehensible way to read Afternoon Delight that may not be what writer/director Jill Soloway intended. In-between the naturalistic staging, unspectacular camera work, tonal issues and decidedly un-triumphant ending in which a character gets sidelined after serving her purpose, Afternoon Delight is the kind of independent low-budget drama that seduces with an interesting premise and unsettles with an intensely uncomfortable third act. (That princess-trinket scene… heart-breaking.) Hahn does quite a bit better as a complex lead character than in her more usual scene-stealing comic roles, while Juno Temple is also quite good as the young woman who upsets the protagonist’s world – both of them, though, aren’t well-served by the end stretch of the film, which seems happy throwing away an entire character just to make its lead couple happy. Maybe that’s the point; maybe that’s an accident –all I know is that by the end of Afternoon Delight, I didn’t want anything to do with anyone in the film.
(On Cable TV, February 2015) Jason Bateman’s usual screen persona is usually that of the good guy, albeit often tempered with a bit of bad passive-aggressive behavior. He rarely goes as full-shmuck as he does in Bad Words, where he undertakes a fairly difficult turn as a highly intelligent, but a just-as- belligerent middle-aged man who finds a way into the national spelling bee contest. He’s out to prove something, and he doesn’t intend to let anyone stand in his way. The result is one of the most strikingly unlikable protagonist in recent memory, one that doesn’t do much to earn audience sympathies and, in fact, such a repellant protagonist for so long that when his redemption comes (as it usually does in those films), it feels forced and not entirely convincing. Still, it’s a strong performance and Bateman does even better as the director of the film, delivering the film’s laughs in an effective fashion. Still, much of Bad Words is just an unbearable as its lead character: it’s deliberately offensive, rife with bad behavior and takes a long while to earn even a smidge of sympathy. At least Bateman acquits himself honorably on both sides of the camera (few will be able to call this a vanity project given the unlikeability of his character), with able supporting performances by Kathryn Hahn (playing another character with a streak of depravity) and newcomer Rohan Chand. Bad Words certainly is a specific kind of comedy that will find fans and haters alike. Your reaction is likely to be based on your tolerance for the kind of antisocial behavior exhibited by the protagonist.
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Considering the amazing cast put together for This is Where I Leave You, it would be understandable to expect a bit more from the results. I count at least nine interesting actors on the top bill, and seeing some of them play against each other is almost fun no matter the material they’re given. As siblings (and their assorted partners) reunite after the death of their father, the film becomes an intricate multi-ring circus of entwined subplots –enough of them that you’re guaranteed to relate. There are laughs, cringe-worthy situations, a surprising amount of R-rated material and an ending that ties up most loose ends hopefully. Jason Bateman is his usual leading-man self, Jane Fonda gets a late chance to play her curves, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver finally gets substantial big-screen comedy roles, Tina Fey and Kathryn Hahn are effortlessly likable… think of this film as a buffet and you won’t be too far off the final impression. Of course, this means that some parts don’t entirely work, or feel contrived, or are executed more mechanically than anything else. There’s wasted potential here, magnified by the known-name actors. (I suspect that had it featured unknowns, the film would have earned better reviews.) Still, as far a dysfunctional family comedies and assorted romantic dramas go, This is Where I Leave You is decently enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations and set-piece sequences to justify the running time.