At one point in Garry Marshall's Mother's Day, a zombie of a film masquerading as a rom-com, Julia Roberts holds a baby poorly. The actress, playing a rigid and frigid home shopping goddess, kind of loosely grasps at the baby girl's midsection, letting her feet dangle.
It's a broad gag, as ridiculous as the absurdly awful wig sitting atop Roberts' head. Yet it works, because it's the kind of joke that the movie knows is funny and, most importantly, is actually funny.
Unfortunately, it's the only genuinely enjoyable joke in all of Mother's Day, a movie that does as much a disservice to comedy as it does to mothers.
Mother's Day is filled with unlikable characters — odd for a light holiday movie. Perhaps the most problematic plot belongs to Kate Hudson and Sarah Chalke, playing sisters hiding secrets (an Indian husband and a wife, respectively) from their homophobic, racist mother (Margo Martindale).
Chalke's character is flat, defined almost entirely as "a lesbian." Hudson's character is habitually thirsty for Indian men. Martindale, an Emmy-winning character actress with grace for days, gets saddled with an unrepentant xenophobe of a character who never grows. Even in what should be the film's emotional conclusion, she's still cartoonishly racist — and humorlessly so.
Elsewhere, Jennifer Aniston plays a woman dealing with her ex-husband's elopement — and her inability to do so is played for hollow laughs. Isn't she nutty? Her ex married a woman 20 years her junior! Now she's talking to a clown about it! How silly. (The clown scene makes no more sense in context of the film than it does here, and it's only memorable because of how truly bizarre it is.)
Her love interest is Jason Sudeikis, playing a recent widower with two daughters facing their first Mother's Day without mom (Jennifer Garner). His plot could best be described as "well-meaning but poorly executed"; this is not a film that can handle the gravitas of a deceased parent.
Notice we haven't named any of these characters. That's not accidental: Their names are ancillary. Their very characterization is nonexistent. Aniston might as well be playing Aniston — there's nothing else there. Mother's Day is just stars hanging out, vaguely pretending to be moms. Only Roberts gets anywhere near a real character, but even that feels like a stretch.
Worse even, all the characters' children feel deeply unnecessary to the plot. Of all the stories, only Sudeikis' feels in any way related to what a mother means to her children, and that mother is deceased. Sure, Martindale is playing Hudson and Chalke's mother, but they want nothing to do with her. Martindale winds up spending most of her share of the story with her son-in-law's mother.
Why can't a movie called Mother's Day be about real mothers? That's not to say Hudson, Aniston and co. couldn't play those characters; many of them are moms, and even if they aren't, that's what acting is. But the very concept of motherhood is tertiary in this movie — and it only serves to feed a lot of Hollywood's ugly tropes about how it portrays moms.
There's a long history of mother characters being shafted, even killed, especially in movies targeted to families. For every positive example like 2014's Wild, we get evil mothers like Mary Jones in Precious and Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest.
Movie moms can and should be depicted in all different kinds of lights. You'd think that, in a movie literally called Mother's Day, there might be one really great, mature, heartwarming relationship between mother and child. In truth, the film could easily be about any other holiday, except for the fact that it happens to end on Mother's Day.
In short: Mother's Day is a deeply unfunny movie that only inspires laughs unintentionally, filled with women whose motherhood rides sidecar to their own personal drama. It's a mess; unable to execute its very base, simple purpose as a holiday movie. If you're taking your mom to the movies this weekend, steer clear. She'll love you more for it.
But do fast-forward to the last 15 minutes or so when Mother's Day eventually hits a streaming service. Watching Julia Roberts hold that baby really is worth it.