Bad Moms is riding a wave of female-driven comedy recently, arguably beginning with Bridesmaids, whose premise is “what if we made risqué comedies about women instead of men?” I laughed at comedies like Old School and The Wedding Crashers – and now I’m laughing at Sisters and Trainwreck. In the hierarchy of all-time comedies, Bad Moms is really nowhere, but I laughed the requisite number of times to feel like I’d gotten my money’s worth.
Spoilers after the jump.
Bad Moms has a title which fits it into the sequence of Bad “X” films begun by Bad Santa. Bad Santa was one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, but there was nothing you could describe as “appropriate” about it, and there was no redemptive arc for anyone, no tidy moral nugget – just a very dark and savage take-down of beloved American holiday institutions. The comedy in Bad Santa is far from innocent, and far from victimless. There’s no real way of looking bad at it and thinking it all ended well. It wasn’t without problems, but my face hurt from laughing by the time the film finished – and that laughter comes from the basic well of comedy, in finding the incongruities in life and holding them up to the light. Bad Moms is cut from entirely different cloth – it’s a typically moral and upright tale about personal growth with a patina of swearing and nudity added as a little spice. Structurally and aesthetically this film’s about celebrating a decent woman who’s backed herself into a corner by being too accommodating and not finding a good balance for herself. It is fundamentally comforting and feels very safe.
Yet, it would be a mistake to think of this film as a truly feminist film, because it never represents a scenario of gender equality – it see-saws on the power balance in relationships. In each of the key characters’ relationships things begin with the woman as a servant and end with the man as a servant. There’s no possibility in the film of a genuinely normal relationship. Moreover, all the men are shown to be weak and either incompetent or subservient – there is no positive male character until the son of the main character is reformed by his mother’s toughened love. The only other male character seen in a positive light is completely objectified by the women in the film. So the film might appear to have as much an anti-man stance as a pro-woman stance – unlike, say, The Intern, which felt much more like a genuinely feminist product, where men were flawed but by far not worthless.
Consequently, there were more than a few scenes in this film which would have been hugely uncomfortable if the genders were reversed- at one point Carla [Kathryn Hahn] grabs a random shop assistant and french-kisses him and then slaps him, which we wouldn’t accept at all now if the genders were reversed. That in itself is an interesting statement about how we view the power of female sexuality in our current media discourse, and I think reveals the true perspective of the film, which is still that of a male. Either the women in the film are a kind of domination fantasy – the perfect woman now morphs from being a perfect servant to taking charge – or the idea of simple female lust is just inherently funny to the creators of this film. Perhaps that’s the deeper layer of satire in play, a meta-commentary on how we construct female fantasies, that they are just the same fantasies as we men got away with and are still getting away with. Women are just men without the upper hand? “Bad Moms” being just “Regular Men”?
If a comedy stands or falls on the basis of whether the audience laughs – this one stands. Clearly it touched a nerve somewhere – but was it the right nerve, and was it the one it was aiming for? I am skeptical. This feels like a film for men about women becoming their empowered fantasy. It doesn’t feel to me like it advances its female characters, instead crushing its male characters. It’s a film with a perfect right to exist, and it’s absolutely no worse than any of its gender mirrors – but I was hoping for something better. But, all of that is trumped by being funny and having engaging characters.