There's only one Christmas movie that it's OK to watch on November 1, and that's The Nightmare Before Christmas (its story, after all, begins straight after Halloween). Nevertheless, Wednesday saw the debut of the first Christmas movie of this year, A Bad Moms Christmas. It's a sequel to last year’s Bad Moms, and sees the heroines of the first film inflicted with visits from their mothers over the most stressful time of the year. And almost despite itself, there's some real heart to these relationships that makes up for a lot of the film's sillier humour.
The set up is that now-divorced Amy (Mila Kunis) is visited by her endlessly critical mum Ruth (the great Christine Baranski) who demands her own, OTT version of a perfect Christmas for her family. Kiki (Kristen Bell) finds her mum Sandy (Cheryl Hines) far too clingy, while Carly (Kathryn Hahn) is the daughter of the hard-living, deeply unreliable Isis (Susan Sarandon). It's a heck of a cast, and it's largely thanks to them that the film works on any level. And let’s take a moment to be thankful that the film did not flip its story on its head and deliver the originally proposed sequel, Bad Dads, instead. There are few enough female-led franchises without turning one into a guys’ story (for those who really need that, Daddy’s Home 2, out in a couple of weeks, stars Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in what appears to be exactly the same plot as this one, so the male spin is covered).
The thing is that Christmas movies really only need to be about 60 per cent as good as other movies to work; the seasonal spirit tends to carry them the rest of the way across the line. That’s why we give The Holiday and Love Actually a pass, even though they’re still not truly great. Christmas is so widely celebrated, with and without its religious element, and with these stories tapping into universal ideas about family, sharing and caring, it’s hard to mess up. And when A bad Moms Christmas lands on those ideas, it has moments that are genuinely great. When Amy and Ruth finally talk about their relationship and their anxieties, it rings true, with an element of honesty in it that will chime with anyone who has ever been in a mother/daughter relationship (so all of us). When the mums talk about their kids, and the insane pressure to somehow raise another human being in a sometimes uncaring world, it feels right.
There is a very sweet scene of two people falling in love during a sack-and-crack wax, which is not something you’ll see in It’s A Wonderful Life
But there are missed opportunities here too, with the film paying lip service but no focused attention to the emotional labour that falls on women at Christmas time, and the physical graft of assembling presents, cooking sumptuous dinners and keeping everything going for everyone else. "Moms do not enjoy Christmas," Baranski states firmly. "They give joy. That's how it works." But in this film there are no consequences when these women decide to give up on sweating the Christmas small stuff, because the movie gets sidetracked by the mother/daughter relationships. That’s not a bad story at all, but it’s an entirely separate one. Were all their families happier with the outcome this way? Was the perception that they had to go to great lengths to create Christmas an illusion all along? I have no idea on the basis of this film. It feels like a missed opportunity because there really aren’t any films that consider a mother’s workload over the holidays in terms of present-buying and entertaining. The closest we’ve had is Jingle All The Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger looking for the perfect toy because Hollywood, like the rest of the world, takes it absolutely for granted that mums will sort out Christmas and – judging by this film – considers it too transgressive to countenance the possibility that they might go on strike. Which is a shame, because that was the whole point of the first film here, and it might fit this setting better.
Of course, the movie has to spend time earning that 15-rating with a healthy dose of bad language, a smattering of outright criminal behaviour and some light sexual references. In fairness, there is a very sweet scene of two people falling in love during a sack-and-crack wax, which is not something you’ll see in It’s A Wonderful Life, but it’s yet another move away from the actual meat of the story.
A Bad Moms Christmas is not, by any rational standard, good. It's patchy and haphazard and far too broad to hit many of the targets at which it aims. It’s not going to join the pantheon with Elf, Scrooged and Santa Claus: The Movie (just me?). But there are laughs here, and moments of honest connection, and that means that when you see this – on a lazy night in, or on a plane – you’ll find moments of Christmas spirit that might touch an emotional chord. But November 1 is still far too early.