What if moms also had moms? Would the same hold true for moms who were, like, bad moms? That’s about the level of thinking that has gone into A Bad Moms Christmas, the rare combination quickie sequel and quickie Christmas special in one. The real question is, who can blame the filmmakers for acting fast? Like its title characters, the original Bad Moms may not have been perfect, or even especially good. But it clearly struck a nerve and served its audience, and it’s difficult to begrudge the success of a movie with three talented female leads and plenty more women in prominent supporting roles (if not behind the scenes).
A Bad Moms Christmas makes the begrudging process somewhat easier, which is quite a feat considering that it adds in three major roles for women over 50. Just as semi-sardonic Amy (Mila Kunis), semi-dippy Kiki (Kristen Bell), and genuinely foulmouthed Carla (Kathryn Hahn) think they have a handle on their imperfect parenting, the holiday season rolls around to send them into stress overdrive. And just as they make a pact to do the holidays their own way this year, all three of their own mothers turn up in ways that are confusingly unexpected given that it’s the week before Christmas.
Plans for a laid-back celebration do not sit well with Amy’s mother Ruth (Christine Baranski), who is ruthlessly critical of Amy’s parenting, ambition, and physical appearance. She arrives back in Chicago ready to spoil her grandchildren (one of the movie’s better running gags: “Have some X-Boxes,” she says blithely) and throw lavish holiday gatherings more or less in her own honor, with her mostly silent husband (Peter Gallagher) in tow. It takes about 30 seconds for Amy to start to crack under the renewed pressure to offer a card-ready holiday that will never live up to the image in her mom’s head.
The other two moms’ moms are out of the Saturday Night Live sketch playbook: Carla’s mom Isis (Susan Sarandon) is like Carla, but more so, while Kiki’s mom Sandy (Cheryl Hines) is boundary-free enough to engage in relatable shenanigans like hiding in Kiki’s room to watch her fall asleep and wind up watching her initiate sex with her husband. This is how writer-director team Jon Lucas and Scott Moore choose to portray the specifics of a needy mother. Classic mom stuff, are they right?
They are not right. They are perhaps at the limits of how much their Hangover-writing bro-na fides can qualify them to write and direct an incisive or even particularly funny movie about mother-daughter relationships. Even so, this should not be a difficult task with such a strong cast in their corner. Baranski, Hines, and Sarandon get together for a low-key scene that happens to be the best one in the movie, where they sit down together and trade background information, issuing silly little one-liners that speak to their world views, no extensive slow-motion montages of weak sight gags required. This scene takes place at a Sky Zone indoor playground, which is a real-life chain, because of course it is; why else would a holiday-obsessed movie take a 10-minute detour into a windowless, decoration-free trampoline room if not for a bit of merry product placement?
If this makes A Bad Moms Christmas sound as shameless as the worst of Adam Sandler or Garry Marshall, it’s not quite at that level of softheaded cynicism. The actors are sometimes fun to watch, especially when they stumble upon a halfway decent line (Isis on Carla’s basic level of love for her son: “I can’t keep up with all these parenting trends”) or amusingly weird bits of physical comedy (stealing a Christmas tree from Lady Foot Locker). Kunis, Bell, and Hahn continue to share a pleasant level of camaraderie, even though the movie mostly splits them up, occasionally putting them back together for check-in scenes where they grin at each other’s wisecracks and prompt each other for anecdotes like they’re hosting some kind of round-robin talk show.
The perpetually underused Hahn also gets the movie’s sole romantic subplot, a surprisingly sweet relationship with a male stripper she meets during a waxing appointment at her spa job. She plays this material with utter sincerity, which is a lot more effective than the movie’s alternate strategy of giving its actors monologues that explain how their insane behavior has real emotional grounding. The movie is simply too lazy to disguise its screenwriterly notions about “heart” as anything but mercenary pitch-room bullshit.
It’s also too lazy to put any effort into tasks as simple as toy parody, as evidenced by the “Happy Happy Princess Doll” that Kiki’s daughter supposedly covets, and too lazy to follow that set-up with any further jokes about a hard-to-find holiday toy. It’s too lazy to figure out how the bad moms might combine a holiday-season trip to the mall with day-drinking, so it just makes beer available at the food court and hard-liquor samples flowing freely from a nearby store (again, at a mall). It’s too lazy to think up ways for Ruth to behave passive-aggressively, and instead has her flat-out insult her daughter immediately, denying any sense of comic escalation. And it’s either too lazy or just not skillful enough to properly frame and shoot the slapstick destruction of a Christmas party, so it makes do with an ugly mish-mash. The stars work hard, and the movie goes slack. It seems like that old adage is true: Behind every Bad Moms is a couple of dudes without any discipline.