In the downtown Toronto neighbourhood where I live, it is mainly the wealthy who can forgo a second income and keep one parent at home with children while the other works on Bay Street or straightens teeth. Things don’t seem that different in the privileged American suburb where Moms’ Night Out is set: Allyson (Sarah Drew) is an unsuccessful mommy blogger and harried stay-at-home mother of three; her husband, Sean (Sean Astin), is a high-flying architect.
But there’s something a bit weird about their set-up. If Sean is an architect, why are they living in a cookie-cutter house? If Allyson is such a germaphobe and perfectionist – she describes her late-night cleaning and fears of salmonella in a voiceover replete with cutesy graphics – why is her house in chaos and why are her children running wild? Surely these two have the financial and professional resources to come up with a simple mechanism to stop their youngest from repeatedly plunging his head in toilets. A lock, for example.
Oh, but this is a movie and the screenwriters need a premise, however tortured and emotionally implausible, for the comedy that will ensue when Allyson and her friends plan a girls’ night out. She is accompanied by her mother-confessor, Sondra (Patricia Heaton), a gracious pastor’s wife who is struggling with a rebellious teenaged daughter, and her best friend Izzy (Logan White), mother of twins and wife to a man who is inexplicably terrified of small children. Meanwhile, the bumbling men are left to look after the kids.
What ensues – a spiralling descent into chaotic improbability that begins with mix-ups over a restaurant reservation and winds up in a jail cell – is frenetic and never as funny as it should be because directing brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin are not skilled enough at pacing the action and varying the volume.
There are some amusing cameos throughout – Kevin Downes quietly shines as Sean’s immature, video-gaming best friend Kevin; Anjelah Johnson-Reyes delights as a snotty restaurant hostess. But Drew’s crucial performance is lacking. Allyson wonders why, when she has everything she wants, she isn’t happy. Her unattractively hyper character often seems whiny, and Drew is not a strong enough comedian to achieve the classic screwball that would let an audience laugh at her mishaps.
Mainly, you have to wonder why Allyson doesn’t just hire a nanny, find a job and get out of the house. Ah, but this is a Christian movie, and once it stops pelting an audience with comic incident, it begins preaching. Through the crazy night, Allyson comes to see that she should just relax and enjoy motherhood. “I am right where I need to be and God has given me everything I need to be a mom,” she concludes after a little sermon from a heavily tattooed biker who tells her Jesus loves her as she is.
In other words, Allyson will be just fine if she sticks to her conventional role.
You don’t expect rom-coms to question heterosexual pair-bonding or action movies to denounce violence, but still, this is a pretty limited social palette that the Erwins are painting with, despite a few patronizing nods to single-motherhood. What is actually offensive (and unrealistic) is how men are portrayed, as inevitably incompetent when it comes to caring for young children. To be fair, there is some softening at the end of the film as Allyson recognizes that the man-child Kevin does know how to babysit, but overall, the gender roles in this film are set in cement.
In the epilogue, Sean tells Allyson that her job is important, reminding her that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Of course, the work of stay-at-home moms is important (and often undervalued), as is the parenting of the many women and men who carry a double burden because they cannot afford to keep a parent at home. You can raise comedy from these choices, but there is not much point moralizing about them: They are largely a function of economics.