Mother's Day confronts the new normal in trio of films

ScreenerBlog

In The Meddler, writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s valentine to Mom, the mother, Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon), proclaims that a mom’s unconditional love for her children is built-in. She’s wired for it; Dad, not so much. What’s old is new again or, more to the point, the archetypical all-embracing, nurturing mommy never really died, though she’s been a tad reinvented to accommodate the new normal.

Viewers are no longer forced to endure a martyred Stella Dallas or, on the flip side, the high-camp melodramatic shenanigans of a Mildred Pierce, but don’t kid yourself, the power of Mom (for good and/or bad) has not diminished. There is her brutality in Precious, her tough love in The Blind Side, her impact beyond the grave in Hello, My Name Is Doris. She may even be a grandma in, well, Grandma, who is a feminist and a lesbian.

On the occasion of Mother’s Day, three new films tackle mom-dom. The screenplays, production value and acting vary, but the common denominator is Mommy fetishism. Perhaps that’s the inevitable outgrowth of a child-centric culture run amok: Obsessed with kids. Ditto Mom.

Needy and Intrusive, but Oh So Loving...and Modern Too

The Meddler is the bravest. How often is a film told from the viewpoint of a mom in her 60s who is at best a dimwitted chatterer, chirping away endlessly in a marked Brooklyn accent? The latter is especially grating.

But Scafaria gets away with a lot, thanks to Sarandon’s gentle depiction of Marnie, a recent New York widow who has abruptly closed up her longtime home and traipsed across the country to Los Angeles—uninvited—to be near her 30-something daughter Lori (Rose Byrne), an aspiring screenwriter and director.

Admittedly, she doesn’t move in with Lori. Indeed, she has settled into her new condo comfortably enough (a nod to the contemporary), though that hasn’t stopped her from checking up on Lori with calls and unannounced visits, arriving at her doorstep, bag of bagels in hand. Naturally, she has keys to her daughter’s apartment.

Like the stereotypical Italian-American mom (who could also be Jewish or Greek), Marnie feels wholly entitled to know every detail of her daughter’s life—nothing is too personal or off-limits. She confronts Lori’s ex-boyfriend (Jason Ritter), begging him to rekindle his relationship with Lori, his involvement with another woman notwithstanding. The classic buttinsky, she sees nothing objectionable in her behavior or even outside the norm.

When Lori tries to introduce her mom to the concept of “boundaries,” Marnie is not only hurt but truly puzzled. The very notion is beyond her emotional vocabulary or intellectual grasp. Her innocence and guilelessness make for an added layer of aggression.

Still, it is 2016 and Scafaria interprets Mom through a contemporary lens. At various points characters say Marnie is suffering from unresolved “grief” over her late husband and in an effort to fill the hole in her life she has mutated into Monster Mom to Lori and the world at large, by turns invading, fostering and providing for anyone and everyone who may (or may not) be in need emotionally and/or financially. Her largess includes doling out $13,000 to acquaintances so they may host a bit fat lesbian wedding for themselves.

Marnie’s over-the-top generosity has no basis in reality and neither does her worldview. There’s nothing in this woman’s blue-collar background—at least as revealed in this film—that would account for her unquestioning embrace of same-sex marriage. She may have evolved to accept it, but that should be acknowledged. Her all-encompassing Mom persona doesn’t cut it.

Equally far-fetched is her joyous response to Lori’s pregnancy. Marnie may want a grandchild and revel in the continuity implied in a new life—especially in wake of her husband’s death—but it seems unlikely that the mother-daughter bond that’s heavily leaned on here, further underscored by Marnie’s thrilled conviction that Lori will have a baby girl, would override her concerns about a knocked-up, unmarried daughter. Where is her great sexual liberation coming from?

But “unconditional” mother love trumps life’s stumbling blocks and Lori, who is almost a sieve in this film, feels that love despite being beleaguered, exasperated, and frustrated with her mother’s intrusive presence. Throughout, she shows mind-blowing restraint. Further, there’s never a doubt she loves Mom too.

To drive home the point and create the necessary symmetry the genre demands, the tables finally get turned at the end. Mom has her own hobbies, friends, and even a boyfriend (wonderfully played by J.K. Simmons). Unlike Stella Dallas in 2016, Mom is no sacrificial lamb in the name of mother love. Instead, she “moves on,” and boasts her own life. Now Lori has become the worrywart, constantly calling Mom to check on her well-being and whereabouts. She’s also confirming the conventional wisdom that did not exist in 1937 and surely played no role in the King Vidor aesthetic. To wit: Adult daughters become mommy to the mommy. Life’s circular and all that jazz.

Goodbye to the Nuclear Family

In Paul Duddridge’s Mothers and Daughters. the intact nuclear family has virtually vanished. Instead, trendy (and oftentimes wholly unexpected) family configurations abound. Still, the potency of maternal adoration and the unbreakable bond between mother (biological and non-biological) and child (especially daughter) is constant. In this one, Grandma also boasts that intergenerational umbilical cord, villain and/or heroine though she may be.

In a Lifetime TV-movie vein, Mother and Daughters presents a series of interwoven stories with more than a few characters residing in the same converted 19th-century Soho loft that at one time housed livestock and is aptly named “Cows and Pigs.” The moniker’s metaphorical meaning in the film’s 21st-century context is excessively overstated.

Our central heroine is photographer Rigby (Selma Blair), a single woman doing mighty well career-wise when an unplanned pregnancy—the result of a short-lived affair—makes her review the trajectory of her life as she thinks about the mom she worshipped—“I became who I am with you,” she intones at one point—but has abandoned in a nursing home. Mom is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and Rigby can’t bear to look at her “beautiful angel of a mother.” Rigby is torn about her own pregnancy for many reasons.

“Cows and Pigs” also houses Georgina (Mira Sorvino), a successful bra designer who was pregnant as a teenager (father unknown) and gave up her child for adoption. The child, Layla (Alexandra Daniels), now an adult and an aspiring dress designer with a stern and demanding adoptive mother, Nina (Sharon Stone), wants to meet Georgina.

There’s pregnant Gayle (Eva Amurri Martino) whose philandering ne’er-do-well boyfriend manipulates her into contacting her estranged mother Millie (Susan Sarandon in a bit role here) in order to elicit a large sum of money for him.

But Rebecca (Christina Ricci) surely boasts the most convoluted story. She’s just learned that the woman she believed was her mother, recently deceased, was in fact her grandmother Alice; her so-called sister Beth (Courteney Cox) is her mother, her putative brother-in-law is her dad and her alleged nephew is her brother.

“That’s a lot to wrap my mind around,” Rebecca says. Indeed.

When Beth got pregnant at 15, a teenage mom was a no-no. So Grandma Alice assumed the role of Becca’s mom and Beth became Sis. Beth was too young to stand up to Alice and never forgave herself for that. Alice also suffered from the choices she made and leaves Becca $2 million. Becca forgives her (she can afford to). Becca also forgives Beth, who forgives Alice. All are reconciled on Earth and beyond.

A frenzy of rapprochement also defines the coming together of Gayle and Millie, who mend their severed relationship via Skype. (Much of the communication in this film takes place through texts and Skype.) Gayle acknowledges the disappointment she has caused her mother with lover-boy, whom Mom fails to appreciate, and her own lack of achievements. Gayle then says she’s pregnant, wondering aloud if that causes Mom an even greater letdown.

“Pregnant?” Even the word washes away any and all lingering resentment and recrimination. Producing a daughter—like Marnie, Millie instinctively knows her grandchild will be a girl—is a major accomplishment, a momentous event sealing a matrilineal bond that’s much bigger than the sum of its parts. Millie had a troubled relationship with her own mother—that is, until Gayle was born. She explains, “I needed you to teach me to be a daughter to my mother.”

When Millie saw Gayle as a newborn, “time stopped,” she gushes, recalling the thrill. “No, no, no, in a good way. You were my miracle and miracles are good and you were good.” Mel Brooks couldn’t top that one.

There’s more. When Layla finally meets her birth mother Georgina, she’s stunned to discover they’ve in fact known each other for years. They’re neighbors and as it turns out (this soap is filled with “as it turns out”), Layla and Georgina share the artistic gene; both are designers and as it turns out (there it is again), Layla’s adoptive mom Nina, a high-profile fashion magazine editor, is helping to launch Georgina’s career. She has been unaware of Georgina’s relationship to herself and Layla. But their interlocking destinies are no fluke. This universe does not cotton to coincidences where moms—in any of their permutations—are concerned. “It’s not a coincidence,” says Nina, eyes filling. “It’s a mother’s instinct to search for her child.”

In a confluence of mommydom, it’s also no coincidence that just as birth mom is welcomed into the family, adoptive mom and daughter are able to bury their hatchets too. For the first time, Layla feels free to reveal her designs to Nina, who in turn recognizes her daughter’s big talent and is now willing to help inaugurate her career.

Adoptive moms are excellent. But biological moms are godhead especially for Rigby, the pregnant photographer who doesn’t really want a child but decides against an abortion, because in her old age she’ll need someone to take care of her. It’s an ironic sentiment coming from her, she concedes. After all, she never visits her mother.

But transformation is in the air. As her belly grows, she evolves, becoming more compassionate and courageous. She also lands a boyfriend, her OBGYN. It’s icky and in the real world the AMA would initiate a well-deserved investigation. But in this galaxy, he’s a catch. After Rigby delivers her daughter (named after Mom), she arrives at the nursing home with Doc and baby in tow, hopeful that on some level the old lady, now in the final stages of dementia, will glean her new family.

When Doc and newborn discreetly leave the room, Rigby finally confesses, “I need to tell you I’m sorry.” She crawls into bed with her, clutching the prone husk. “I love you, I love you.”

Womb at the Top

Garry Marshall’s Mother’s Day is the most shameless of the lot. Like his New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, this one is slick and starry (Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson) and had the budget to produce a moderately entertaining ensemble holiday flick, despite the limitations of topic and genre.

Instead, Marshall works from a script that reeks of cynicism or just plain indifference. Or, worse, Marshall believes he’s telling a fun (but serious) story that explores the vagaries of mommy life in the new normal. Mother’s Day is in fact stunningly retro. It’s so been there, done that.

Set in an upscale Atlanta suburb in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day, it presents four interconnected narratives (not unlike Mothers and Daughters), starting with Sandy (Aniston), a single mother of two boys grappling with her ex-husband marrying a 20-something bimbo, the latter slipping all too readily into her sons’ lives. Co-parenting is the theme here.

Sandy’s best pal and neighbor Jesse (Hudson) is married to Russell (Aasif Mandvi), an East Indian with whom she’s had a son. Jesse’s sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke) is a lesbian married to a woman (Cameron Esposito). The sisters are estranged from their low-class parents Flo and Earl (Margo Martindale and Robert Pine), who are right out of “DuckDynasty.”They are unapologetic racial/religious/homophobic bigots and know nothing about the way or with whom their daughters live. Flo and Earl unexpectedly surface in their recreational vehicle, determined to make amends for Mother’s Day. It’s a challenge. “You’re married to a towel head?” a horrified Flo asks Jesse.

Then there’s the bartender, Kristin (Britt Robertson), who’s just had a baby with her standup comic boyfriend but cannot commit to marrying him. She was adopted, doesn’t really know who she is, and has “abandonment issues,” she explains. At a recent pre-release screening, the generally stony-faced, non-responding audience tittered.

But when Miranda (Roberts), a Shopping Network guru, admitted she never had any children, followed by one word, “career,” punctuated with meaning and regret, the tittering morphed into unabashed laughter.

There’s also a Mr. Mom in this community of clichés. Bradley (Jason Sudekis) is the father of two teenage girls and widower of a soldier (Jennifer Garner) killed in the line of duty overseas. He’s overwhelmed with loss and refuses to acknowledge Mother’s Day. Here it is again: unresolved grief and denial.

But skipping Mother’s Day is not an option. His daughters want to celebrate it (and thus remember their mom), and the neighborhood moms—surrogate moms to him and his daughters—are insistent he do something to mark the occasion that the town is commemorating with a big communal parade featuring jugglers, clowns on stilts and a giant womb float. Both sight gag and joke fall flat.

But so does everything in this predictable movie. Sandy learns to co-parent with stepmom, while stepmom knows she’ll never replace biological mom; Bradley confronts his feelings and finds common ground with Sandy. Even narrow-minded Flo and Earl—the most offensive stereotypic characters on the screen in a long time—make peace with their daughters and their respective partners, especially after Flo meets Russell’s mom (Anoush NeVart), her broadly drawn East Indian counterpart, and discovers their profound alliance as moms.

In all fairness, there is one amusing (and unwittingly) revealing moment when Miranda, who is attending a wedding, awkwardly holds the bridal couple’s infant at some distance from her body, its feet comically dangling in the air. Roberts’ high-voltage grin does not camouflage how ill at ease she feels, how alien the whole baby experience is. She’s not lactating.

Next on the docket is Bad Moms, a summer comedy about three well-heeled suburban matriarchs (Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn) who, feeling harried and underappreciated, ditch all responsibility and join forces for a night of comic, self-indulgent freedom. We’ll reserve judgment on that one.

Oh, why can’t they re-release Throw Momma from the Train? Even Bloody Mama, with Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, guns a-blazing, looks awfully good right about now.