We’re now three movies into director Garry Marshall’s holiday-inspired rom-com experiment, a cinematic endeavor that officially launched in 2010 with Valentine’s Day, then extended a year later with New Year’s Eve. Since Marshall shows no real signs of slowing down in this capacity, and he’s barely scratched the surface in terms of marketable holidays with which he can loosely structure a film, it’s worth noting that Mother’s Day is the best of the bunch to date. However, that’s likely because the other two films were unreasonably bad.
Still, Marshall’s getting better at this game, bringing tangible, relatable character issues to Mother’s Day and avoiding – for the most part – the paper-thin, cardboard-cutout caricatures that bumbled through the inane and preposterous New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.
The structure hasn’t changed. Marshall and his screenwriters still follow a gaggle of loosely connected characters as they approach the title holiday. This time out, we’re in Atlanta, where Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) is trying to cope with the fact that her ex (Timothy Olyphant) has re-married “a tween” (Shay Mitchell). Across town, Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is a widower juggling his teenage daughters, who haven’t moved on past the hard reality that their Marine Corps mother (Jennifer Garner) died in combat. And in the worst subplot of the bunch, sisters Jesse (Kate Hudson) and Gabi (Sarah Chalke) try to hide BIG life secrets from their racist, close-minded mother (Margo Martindale)… which becomes increasingly impossible when mom rolls her RV into town for a surprise visit. Cue the canned audience laughter.
What you see is what you get from Garry Marshall, a filmmaker who struck gold with Pretty Woman back in 1990, but a storyteller who honed his chops on sitcoms such as The Odd Couple, Happy Days and Mork & Mindy, which explains why his creative decisions fit better on an ABC or NBC television program. Marshall’s humor is safe and predictable. He’s just as content to cut away to a reaction shot from an animal (either a llama or a puppy dog) then he is to push for a legitimately funny punchline. He buffs the edges off of a dirtier comic like Sudeikis – seeing Sudeikis share a scene with We’re the Millers co-star Jennifer Aniston only reminds us what each is capable of when they aren’t trapped in Marshall-ville – and he asks very little out of regular players like Hudson, Hector Elizondo or Larry Miller (playing a motorcycle cop, of all things).
And then there’s Julia Roberts, Marshall’s Pretty Woman who is kind enough to return for these holiday excursions to humor her director and, yes, light up the screen. Roberts is playing a home-shopping network star, a household name peddling mood pendants who has a connection to Aniston and, later, to beauty Britt Robertson. It’s a sweet, if inconsequential part, though it gives Roberts a few opportunities to flash that signature smile which – admittedly – still lights up the screen.
Mother’s Day works better than its holiday-themed predecessors because this holiday prompts the director to actually explore personal conflicts and emotional issues facing moms and those of us with a mom. Namely, everyone. And while it’s far from controversial, it’s progressive for a mainstream comedy, spinning subplots about deceased moms, divorced moms, overwhelmed step-moms, gay moms, and moms who put babies up for adoption. I want to give it credit for mining contemporary relationships for its material, but I also have to dock it points for the tone-deaf way it resolves a few of its stories. (The Hudson/Chalke/Martindale soap opera is particularly out of touch and insulting on so many levels).
Ultimately, Mother’s Day is a better movie than it’s like-minded comedies, yet still a bad movie in its own right. Do with that information what you will.