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A Bad Moms Christmas: double the moms, half the fun

The sequel to last year’s hit comedy doesn’t know what made its predecessor work.

Kathryn Hahn, Mila Kunis, and Kristen Bell in A Bad Moms Christmas
Kathryn Hahn, Mila Kunis, and Kristen Bell in A Bad Moms Christmas.
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/STX
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Last July, the moms-behaving-badly comedy aptly titled Bad Moms hit it big at the box office, crossing the $100 million mark by September. The reviews were mixed and the film’s premise wasn’t especially innovative, but with the writers of the first Hangover movie (Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) at the helm and a main cast (Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn) that clicked beautifully, Bad Moms was a bright spot in the middle of a slate of depressingly mediocre summer studio releases.

These days, no good high-performing movie goes unpunished by a sequel, so a second installment — A Bad Moms Christmas — was rushed into production for release barely 17 months later. Lucas and Moore once again return as writers and directors, and the core cast is back, with promising new additions.

But either this haste shows in the result, or lightning doesn’t strike twice: A Bad Moms Christmas is thin and silly, like an overlong Christmas episode of a sitcom you pair with some reheated lo mein when you can’t figure out what else to do on a stray weeknight. (The fact that it’s opening on November 1 is the real War on Christmas.) It’s a warmed-over repeat, sans the charm.

A Bad Moms Christmas picks up where the last film left off — too much

A Bad Moms Christmas relies on the time-worn Hollywood comedy principle of taking whatever worked in the last movie and doubling it. Accordingly, there are twice as many moms in this movie, twice as many goofy set pieces, and two sexy hunks instead of one. (The only thing there’s less of is Christina Applegate as the mean girl of the moms group, unfortunately — in Bad Moms she shone as the PTA president; here, she just gets a cameo.) But that means it’s overstuffed now, and everyone gets short shrift in a story bolstered by stereotypes that seem less winking and more mean the second time around. (That this franchise is written and directed by two men is starting to feel a little too obvious.)

This film takes place about 18 months after the first one, which brings us to the week before Christmas — a time, as Amy (Kunis) reminds us in voiceover, that is very crazy for moms, what with the cooking and the parties and the buying presents and the guilt and the woe.

Amy’s divorce has just been finalized; she’s still dating dreamy widower dad Jesse (Jay Hernandez). Meek Kiki (Bell) is still running herself ragged with the four young kids, but her husband seems to be pitching in a little more. And Carla (the still-marvelous Hahn) is her same kooky self.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn in A Bad Moms Christmas.
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/STX

What could make Christmas even zanier for these moms? If their moms show up! So that’s what happens.

Amy’s mom, Ruth (Christine Baranski), is a phenomenally tightly wound judgment machine who arrives with a towering pile of presents for her grandkids and Amy’s father Hank (Peter Gallagher) in tow. The source of Amy’s perfectionism quickly becomes clear, as Ruth challenges Amy’s decision to have a low-key Christmas at home every way she can, while also remaining pathologically unable to acknowledge Jesse as Amy’s boyfriend (she asks him — loudly, as if he can’t understand English — to take her bags) or even remember his name.

Kiki’s mother Sandy (Cheryl Hines) gets in three days early, wearing a T-shirt with Kiki’s face on it. She’s a bundle of energy, all of which is aimed squarely at being her daughter’s shadow; she has cut and styled her hair to look like Kiki’s, and she’s prone to lurking in the corner of the master bedroom until someone notices. And she is, of course, driving Kiki crazy.

Then there’s Isis (Susan Sarandon) — “like the terrorist organization,” she explains — who regularly hitchhikes around the country and lands on Carla’s doorstep via the cab of a long-haul truck, only dimly aware that it’s Christmas. Carla is hardly a model of parental responsibility, but Isis is a total disaster, having come to town mostly to ask her daughter for money. Carla, meanwhile, is getting more and more tired of her job waxing women’s nether regions at the spa, though the job gets more interesting when a “sexy Santa” contestant named Ty (Justin Hartley of This Is Us) shows up to get the same work done.

Things continue apace from there. The ladies spend a night out at a bar for the sexy Santa competition, vaguely Magic Mike-derived. In a lengthy bit of product placement, all three families visit Sky Zone, an indoor trampoline park, to bounce around and play dodgeball and have conversations that are meant to reveal things about their characters. They go caroling, in costume.

As in Bad Moms, there’s a scene where the original moms decide they have Finally Had Enough — this time with Christmas — while drinking beer at a mall food court (which is apparently legal in the Bad Moms universe). So they decide to let loose, grinding on the mall Santa and stealing a Christmas tree from Lady Foot Locker. Later here’s a scene with a party gone very wrong, too. Also, the kids get sad again.

There are plenty of “shocking” bawdy jokes, shocking because I guess moms aren’t supposed to work blue. It’s all very familiar (though A Bad Moms Christmas does boast the addition of a Kenny G cameo), but whereas the sillier plot points of Bad Moms seemed to grow more or less organically from the characters’ own evolution, here everything feels vaguely rushed, as if Lucas and Moore were following a checklist of things to squeeze into the studio-mandated 104-minute runtime (except the Sky Zone scene, which goes on seemingly forever for no good reason).

A Bad Moms Christmas doesn’t treat its characters as anything more than caricatures

Bad Moms was ostensibly a movie about moms who are tired of the rat race of modern (and quite affluent) motherhood and realize they don’t need to “have it all” to be happy. The title is a joke: Only by being a bad mom can you be a good mom! But the movie was actually about how female friendship, especially among women with wildly different temperaments and outlooks, allows those women to bring out the best in one another.

A Bad Moms Christmas is also ostensibly about moms who are So Over It, but what it’s supposed to actually be about is how everyone eventually grows up to become their own mother. We can see how Ruth’s overbearing parenting, Sandy’s hover-parenting, and Isis’s total lack of parenting have influenced their respective daughters’ own child-rearing styles and contributed to their particular neuroses.

Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Kathryn Hahn in A Bad Moms Christmas
Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Kathryn Hahn in A Bad Moms Christmas.
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/STX

That’s all well and good. But the moms’ moms are all so broadly drawn that none of them feel like real people, more like two-dimensional types. And their daughters get flattened by association. So the movie largely feels like a collection of jokes to file under “Women sure can be nuts, eh?” rather than a character-driven comedy. The result, even when it’s funny (and it is funny, at times), is vaguely insulting.

That sort of thin characterization can work fine on certain kinds of sitcoms, partly because we already know the characters well enough to fill in the blanks. But in A Bad Moms Christmas, it’s sophomoric, and a little offensive. Bad Moms may be a franchise about how moms are people too, not just machines programmed to fulfill their family’s whims, but A Bad Moms Christmas doesn’t fit in with that premise.

A Bad Moms Christmas opens in theaters on November 1.