by Joe Hammerschmidt
It’s an unwritten cinematic law which dictates at least one new December holiday-based motion picture every year. Still possessing fond-ish memories of the treat that was last year’s Office Christmas Party, you’d think what could follow in its footsteps will be just as original. The answer, yes and no. In the sub-sub-genre of harmless Christmas comedies that also count as de-facto sequels when you overthink them, Daddy’s Home 2 may fare better with the four-quadrant family audiences, while A Bad Moms Christmas will click just with the mothers, and their own matriarchs of equal demeanor. It carries an original feel, with a vital shot of acting estrogen led by a new trio of mothers led by Susan Sarandon to show the original Bad-Mom trio from last year’s enjoyable predecessor, headed by Mila Kunis, a thing or two on properly celebrating a joyous occasion. Yet because it’s still a badly timed sequel, the effect is rather cheapened, and the toll is felt when landing certain jokes. Funny when it wants to be, uncertain over when it shouldn’t.
Picking up a year after the events of 2016’s Bad Moms that saw overworked Amy Fisher (Kunis) take back her own maternal empowerment, she now faces the stressful challenge of pulling off yet another perfect Christmas for his family, now a little larger to accommodate new beau Jesse (Jay Hernandez). For once, her goal is just to cut back on the flashiness and spend more actual family closeness time. That idea is spun on its head when her overbearing mother Ruth (Christine Baranski) comes to town with the end goal of an over-hyped celebration of commercialism. Fisher’s close rebellion friends, Carla (Kathryn Hahn, the utter definition of R-rated grace) and Kiki (a daintily reserved Kristen Bell) are at the ready to help, while staving off the surprise arrivals of their respective mothers, rock and roll roadie Isis (Sarandon), and clingy Sandy (Cheryl Hines).
In a mad rush to capitalize on the base themes and relatability which had made the original film a sleeper hit two summers ago, Christmas is keen on tapping the same fertile ground. The only difference scribes/directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover) bank on: upping the familiar insanity to near cartoon-ish levels, with a twist of generational humor, bolstered by Baranski’s antiquated “the more, the merrier” approach to the holiday, and the six or so days building up. Rather admirable to show restraint by not covering 12 days of intensity. Of course, Amy is taking of none of that conflict; neither can Carla, whose mom had rarely been in her life after the birth. Sarandon hones her instincts so easily and raises the stakes very high to deliver a role worthy of her comedic and dramatic strengths. Naturally a joy to see her blend both together in a very complex performance, with Hahn bouncing off her ‘mother’s’ springboard with unapologetic smuttiness. Bell as the daughter in need of personal space restrictions from Hines, her mother convicts a shy positivism as the pair establish their new ‘friendship’, helped immensely by a welcome return for Wanda Sykes’ therapist character.
For all the smart and sophisticated casting one can squeeze out of a bankable Hollywood production with a certain shelf life behind it, the efforts routinely turn rotten when one bad apple, an over-reliance on immature that could weaken the experience overall. Where the film falls apart should’ve been the most rewarding part, where Carla falls for a mysterious stranger, the elusive sexy firefighter Ty Swindell (This is Us’s Justin Hartley). Instead, he’s relegated to a one-note stock character who ultimately hurts the momentum of the final act.
Will almost intentionally lazy joke-writing destroy A Bad Moms Christmas’s chances for success? Not entirely. Such design flaws can be overlooked when talent can can go past the page, and for once, they’re not as harmful as with other big-name comedies from earlier in the year. But the need to have rushed this sequel out, while its predecessor clearly needs more time to acquire an ageless quality, cheapens the desired effect. Had they waited another year and looked for more mature scriptwriters, I’d have a more positive opinion. As it is, it’s not perfect, more imperfectly rowdy, and if we can look past the R-rated essence, it’s still heartwarming and plenty of fun to rock any expensively outlandish tree. (C+)
A Bad Moms Christmas opens this weekend (early Wednesday opening) at most area theaters; rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some drug use; 105 minutes.