If your mom could write and direct a film, it might look something like Mother’s Day, the most recent entry in the Garry Marshall holiday-themed movie factory. Considering that this is Marshall’s 18th feature film, that is not a compliment. Mother’s Day has the production value of a big-budget Hallmark Channel movie, so generic and intentionally bland that it’s like one of those blank greeting cards you buy at the store. Given that Mother’s Day only has the barest vestiges of a plot, it seems that the film’s three screenwriters never got around to figuring out what they wanted to write on it.
If you’ve seen Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve, you should be familiar with the Marshall template by now. In the days leading up to a holiday, a group of A-listers scramble to decide who they plan to celebrate it with — as they search for love, happiness, and better agents. The previous two entries in the series were written by Katherine Fugate, but this time around Tom Hines, Lily Hollander, and Anya Kochoff take over the reins. They improve on prior editions in at least one way: there are fewer storylines this time around, which means we get more time to spend with the characters. There were so many actors overcrowding the screen in New Year’s Eve that it felt more like a disaster area than a movie.
Even with a reduced cast list, Mother’s Day feels both overstuffed and undernourished, filled with subplots that simply don’t need to exist. The problem with Marshall’s movies is that they view their characters less as people with unique, interesting storylines than as demographics. In Mother’s Day, the audience is introduced to Gabi (Sarah Chalke) and Max (Cameron Esposito), a married couple keeping their son a secret from Gabi’s conservative mother. Flo (Margo Martindale) doesn’t even know her daughter is a lesbian. Deceit, however, runs in the family. Gabi’s sister, Jesse (Kate Hudson), also hasn’t told her mother she’s married to a hunky Indian doctor, Russell (Aasif Mandvi), with whom she has two children.
This situation is patently unbelievable in the age of Facebook. How would it be possible to hide two entire families from your parents when one’s every waking moment is uploaded onto the Internet? And did their mother never, ever think to visit at any point in the past decade? If implausible, the scenario is at least rife with dramatic possibilities Mother’s Day never gets around to exploring. A series of wacky mishaps quickly force the families to come together, learning to look past their differences in a matter of scenes. While the movie is cosmetically diverse, it’s like a United Colors of Benetton ad —inclusive in order to pat itself on the back. Mother’s Day is less a film than a marketing scheme.
While it might feel forward-thinking, what Mother’s Day is actually selling is remarkably retrograde. Its depiction of motherhood as the vocation of all-sacrificing noble saints gifted with the unimpeachable powers of perfect intuition would have felt dated if the film were directed by George Cukor and starred Norma Shearer. Marshall casts Jennifer Aniston as Sandy, a frazzled divorcee who — in the time-honored tradition of rom-com heroines — trips over everything in her path. She botches an interview with a famous talk show host, Miranda (Julia Roberts), after having a breakdown regarding her ex-husband’s leggy new squeeze. In an act of absurd benevolence, Miranda gives her the job anyway.
But as the movie repeatedly points out, the reason that Sandy is a disaster is because she loves her kids so much. The film’s moral is delivered by a wise clown who works an impromptu party Sandy throws for her children. After overhearing Sandy complain about the situation, he shows her his trick scarf and opines that motherhood is a lot like magic. “Bottomless scarf, bottomless coffee, bottomless mother’s love for her kid,” the clown says. Elsewhere in the film, a stand-up comic (Jack Whitehall) forced to bring his newborn to a gig interrupts his set to wax empathetic about the virtues of mothers. He tells the audience that the shirt he’s wearing is the only one he has left because he never knows when their child is about to be sick — but his girlfriend just knows.
The film’s script is designed to constantly flatter the sensibilities of its target audience, which is a nice enough goal, but it never seems to reflect the way that people actually speak, think, or behave. At best it’s corny, and at its worst it’s actively offensive. Miranda, for instance, is one of the richest women in America, but Mother’s Day paints her as a lonely career woman who has everything she wants — except for a family. (Her sadness is underscored by a wig so bad it’s destined for a gay cult following; imagine Velma from Scooby-Doo by way of Mars Attacks.) Despite her accomplishments, Miranda finally realizes her purpose when the long-lost daughter she gave up as a teen (Britt Robertson) shows up on her doorstep.
If Mother’s Day trimmed the fat from previous Marshall efforts, it should have kept on trimming. Of the movie’s many haphazard storylines, there’s only one that shouldn’t have been outright tossed in the garbage; in coming to terms with her daughters’ dishonesty, Flo begins a Skype correspondence with Russell’s mother, Sonia (Anoush NeVart), who helps her learn to forgive. The casting here is eerily perfect: NeVart and Martindale are so uncannily similar that, at first, they appear to be the same actress. The sneakily profound exchanges between Sonia and Flo speak to the ways in which women can find understanding and recognition across cultures.
Instead of pandering to its imagined version of women, this Mother’s Day would have been better spent focusing on reflecting their actual, real-life experiences.