Mother’s Day: A Treacly Cavalcade of Horror

Garry Marshall's patronizing 'holiday anthology' film boasts a star-studded ensemble, but its characters seem barely human.

Open Road Films

It’s hard to know where to begin with Mother’s Day, a misshapen Frankenstein of a movie that feels like it escaped the Hallmark headquarters halfway through its creation and rampaged into theaters, trying to teach audiences how to love. The third in Garry Marshall’s increasingly strange “holiday anthology” series, Mother’s Day isn’t the rom-com hodge-podge that Valentine’s Day was, or the bizarre morass of his follow-up New Year’s Eve. But it does inspire the kind of revolted tingling that strikes at, say, a karaoke performance gone very wrong.

While it’s aiming for frothiness and fun, Mother’s Day is a patronizing and sickly sweet endeavor that widely misses the mark for its entire 118-minute running time (it feels much longer). The audience gets the sense that there are many Big Truths to be learned: that family harmony is important, that it’s good to accept different lifestyles without judgment, that loss is a natural part of the circle of life. But its overall construction—as a work of cinema—always feels a little off. One character gets a life lesson from a clown at a children’s party, and departs with a hearty, “Thanks, clown!” Extras wander in the background and deliver halting bits of expositional dialogue like malfunctioning robots. Half of the lines seem to have been recorded post-production and are practically shouted from off-screen to patch over a narrative that makes little sense. Mother’s Day is bad in the regular ways (e.g. the acting and writing), but also in that peculiar way where it feels as though the film’s creator has never met actual humans before.

Like its predecessors, Mother’s Day boasts an all-star ensemble of characters who ping-pong around a general theme in celebration of the titular holiday. There’s Jennifer Aniston as Sandy, a divorced mom whose chiseled ex (Timothy Olyphant) has moved on to someone younger. Kate Hudson plays Jesse, who’s committed the unforgivable sin of marrying a non-white man (Aasif Mandvi), which has estranged her from her conservative Texan parents. Jason Sudeikis is Bradley, a soldier mourning the loss of his wife whose cute daughters need him to snap out of his sad reverie. These heroes, and many more, are constantly tuned into the Home Shopping Network to watch the lifestyle-guru stylings of Miranda (Julia Roberts), a sweater-caped extra-terrestrial who hawks junky bracelets and mood pendants with all the charisma of a coma patient. Will she be important to the central plot later? Of course she will.

Mother’s Day is set in Atlanta, an astonishing choice considering the blinding whiteness of the ensemble picked to represent this majority-black city (the only African American character is played by the comedian Loni Love). Still, Marshall and the film’s four credited screenwriters take it upon themselves to have characters deliver bland lectures on racism and homophobia to the film’s one-dimensional “villains,” Jesse’s red-state parents. Their other daughter, Jesse’s sister, Gabi (Sarah Chalke), outdid her sibling’s marital transgression by marrying a woman (played by the comedian Cameron Esposito). Mother’s Day is looking for easy applause by castigating Jesse and Gabi’s parents (played by Margo Martindale and Robert Pine), who roll around in an RV and wear various themed t-shirts that could have been purchased at a Donald Trump rally. But they’re far too cartoonish to stand in for any real-life debate, and by the end everyone discovers the virtues of tolerance anyway.

Aniston’s character, Sandy, seems to embody the unfortunate, gossip-rag view of her real life: She’s a harried 40-something replaced by a younger model (the buxom Tina, played by Shay Mitchell). Sandy struggles to juggle the various commitments of her two sons, kvetches about her ex-husband at yoga class, and gets an instant case of word-diarrhea the minute she’s speaking to an eligible single man (in this case, Sudeikis). At one point, her kids fuss over leaving her to hang out with her father, saying, “But you’re so sad!” as if they’re suddenly the editorial board of The National Enquirer. Films like Mother’s Day seem to deploy this frumpy-mom stereotype for automatic audience relatability, but it’s yet another horrendously hackneyed trope in a film already filled with them.

The rest of the ensemble feel as though they’re sleepwalking, including younger stars like Britt Robertson, who plays a new mother searching for the woman who gave her up for adoption. (Guess who?) Sudeikis, too, seems to equate “grief” with “looking tired all the time,” or perhaps it was too difficult to tap into his character’s sadness about his wife (who’s revealed as a celebrity cameo) given such a poor script. Unlike with the rom-com Valentine’s Day, there’s no clear genre angle to shoot for here to make the film feel like a cohesive whole. Each vignette stumbles toward a conclusion of sorts, with the film’s only consistency being an immense smugness: Here is a movie that has bravely dared to declare that mothers (and wives and daughters) deserve our love and attention and respect. For viewers who need tacky films to teach them basic lessons like that in totally artless fashion, well, there’s always the possibility of a Father’s Day sequel.