Friday, April 29, 2016

Mother's Day: Holiday fatigue

Mother's Day (2016) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rated PG-13, and rather pointlessly, for fleeting profanity and mildly suggestive content

By Derrick Bang

Veteran director Garry Marshall began what could be termed his “holiday merry-go-round” series with 2010’s Valentine’s Day, which blended an impressively diverse ensemble cast with a reasonably clever series of interlocking stories from scripters Katherine Fugate, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.

When Sandy (Jennifer Aniston, left) brings her sons (Caleb Brown and Brandon Spink)
for their regularly scheduled weekend with their father Henry (Timothy Olyphant), she's
dismayed by his new young wife Tina's (Shay Mitchell) barely there clothing, and by the
lengths she has gone to curry favor with the boys.
It was popular enough to generate a sequel, 2011’s New Year’s Eve, which included a few casting carryovers and a script credited solely to Fugate. Alas, the result wasn’t nearly as satisfying; the intertwining stories weren’t as clever, their outcomes far more predictable.

Despite this, Marshall has gone to the well a third time, with further diminishing returns. Perhaps hoping that new blood would invigorate the premise, Marshall turned this time to scripters Tom Hines, Lily Hollander, Anya Kochoff and Matthew Walker. Frankly, it feels like they worked independently, rather than collaboratively; the episodic narratives link up clumsily, if at all, and Mother’s Day too frequently feels like an average episode of TV’s Love Boat or Fantasy Island.

Which isn’t necessarily bad, I suppose, although that sets the bar rather low.

Yes, some of the arch one-liners will elicit giggles, and it’s still fun to see so many familiar faces in a single project. But the slapstick elements are TV-sitcom stupid, and the core storyline involving racist, insensitive parents churns out a candy-coated happy resolution with ludicrous swiftness (hence the Fantasy Island reference).

So, get your scorecards out...

Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) and Henry (Timothy Olyphant), amicably divorced, have been sharing custody of two young sons (Caleb Brown and Brandon Spink). But the situation’s harmony is shattered when Henry announces his surprise marriage to a much younger hotsy-totsy named Tina (Shay Mitchell). Cutting remarks about cradle-robbing aside, Sandy fears that she’ll be downgraded to “other mother” status: of particular concern, with the impending arrival of Mother’s Day.

At the same time, Sandy hopes to enhance her career as a clothing and set designer by landing an interview with TV shopping network diva Miranda Collins (Julia Roberts), represented by longtime agent and friend Lance Wallace (Marshall perennial Hector Elizondo).

Sandy also is good friends with sisters Jesse (Kate Hudson) and Gabi (Sarah Chalke), who live next door to each other. Jesse is happily married to Russell (Aasif Mandvi), and they have a toddler son (Ayden Bivek); Gabi is equally happily married to wife Max (Cameron Esposito). Jesse and Gabi long ago fled from judgmental parents Flo (Margo Martindale) and Earl (Robert Pine), and have concealed their respective relationships, because Flo and Earl are both racist and homophobic.

Totally concealed. For years. Russell doesn’t even know that Flo and Earl aren’t aware of their marriage.

So, naturally, Flo and Earl clandestinely pop up, thus letting several cats out of various bags.

In her spare time, Sandy works out at a gym run by Bradley (Jason Sudeikis), a widower struggling to cope with daughters Rachel (Jessi Case) and Vicky (Ella Anderson). Bradley’s military wife (Jennifer Garner, in a brief video flashback) was killed a year ago in the line of duty, and he hasn’t been able to move past the grief ... particularly with Mother’s Day approaching.

Finally, Zack (Jack Whitehall) and Kristin (Britt Robertson), a couple working in the same restaurant/bar, share a toddler daughter. Zack has long wanted to get married, but Kristin has resisted for Reasons That Remain Secret. As a sidebar, Zack hopes to supplement their meager income by entering a stand-up comic contest boasting a $5,000 first prize.

Zack and Kristin appear not to interact with any of the others; they do, of course, in a way that is as close as this film gets to an actual surprise (but not really, for viewers paying attention).

Marshall further lards the landscape with quickie appearances by comic talents such as Jon Lovitz and Larry Miller; further supporting characters include a trio of women at Bradley’s gym, who keep trying to hook him up with eligible dates. Late in the game, we also meet Russell’s bubbly mother, Sonia (Anoush NeVart, who seems to have wandered in from a nearby Bollywood shoot).

There’s a certain breezy charm and easy humor to much of what follows, although some of these little vignettes play out better than others. As already mentioned, the Flo/Earl storyline quickly builds to an eyebrow-raising, are-you-kidding climax involving, among other things, a parade float of a giant vagina. (I wouldn’t make up such things.)

On the other hand, the hijinks between Aniston and Olyphant are genuinely funny, with the latter displaying an unexpected facility for light comedy. (There’s an initial disconnect, given how well Olyphant portrayed tough guy Raylan Givens in TV’s Justified, but the actor’s laid-back charm quickly wins us over.) The sexy Tina proves an easy target for Sandy’s well-timed sniping, although it’s rather ironic that the latter keeps complaining about Henry’s new wife’s minimal attire, since Aniston also spends most of the film barely dressed. (One assumes she’s quite proud of her well-toned 46-year-old bod.)

Hudson and Chalke also are a hoot, early on, as they evade incriminating details during Skype sessions with their parents (who are believed to be enjoying a road trip several states away, whereas in reality they’re en route).

On the other hand, too many of these characters remain wafer-thin, granted almost no back-story details. That’s particularly true of Zack and Kristin; Whitehall and Robertson are cute together, but that’s about all that can be said. And, frankly, Roberts is just slumming; Miranda is as vapid as her insincere TV show personality.

Ultimately, superficiality is this film’s major problem. Valentine’s Day offered some cleverly ironic and genuinely surprising vignettes, along with a few aw-shucks outcomes that felt just right for the respective characters. In contrast, it’s impossible to get involved with any of the people here; they’re just stick figures spouting witty dialogue, and maneuvering through TV-sitcom contrivances. They don’t resonate.

Mother’s Day isn’t the worst way to spend two hours, if your expectations are low. But I dearly hope Marshall has no plans for Thanksgiving. Or Christmas.

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