Bad blockbusters aren’t what they used to be. As cinema becomes less and less viable as an investment, executive producers and movie companies seem less and less willing to take risks with big-budget pictures. Back in the 90s, sequels were the safe option, then in the 00s remakes and reboots were the safe option, but by the 10s nothing short of indefinite serial continuity seems like the safe option, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe leading the way as the risk averse franchise par excellence. Planning a cycle of films that is designed to last until at least the end of the 20s, and gradually integrating every cinematic genre into its worldview, the MCE has turned the experience of universe-building into an aesthetic and entertainment end in itself. Perhaps that’s why the MCE films also feel so cautious, so tasteful and so risk-averse in their individual style as well, with each instalment aiming so dutifully to speak to everyone that it ends up feeling as if it isn’t really speaking to anyone.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that kind of universal appeal, it’s just that it tends to preclude the kind of inspired idiocy and inanity that were once the province of an older breed of blockbuster. That’s not to say that the MCE doesn’t still traffic in idiocy, but that it’s unwilling to take that idiocy to the hyperbolic heights that can make blockbusters such a hallucinatory and enjoyable experience. Without being too arch or too knowing, I’ve always enjoyed that ludicrous blockbuster register, partly because of the way in which it forces out the contradictions, assumptions and anxieties that often remain massaged into tactful invisibility by more independent films (or less ridiculous blockbuster films). At the same time, I don’t think that teen blockbusters – which take up an increasingly sizeable percentage of the market, and of course a significant part of the Marvel market – are quite capable of descending to that level of inanity, since there is something inherently more visionary and more elevated about adolescent inanity. As late capitalism becomes more inane with every generation, so teen culture needs to find increasingly extravagant and ingenious modes of inanity to keep up with and represent it, with the result that adolescent inanity often feels like a way of glimpsing a new world – or glimpsing our own world in a new way – as well as a mode of tacit resistance.
By contrast, what makes your old-fashioned blockbuster – and especially your old-fashioned 90s blockbuster – so enjoyable is the way in which it positions adulthood, as well as the way in which it wraps up its ludicrous visions within a purportedly mature notion of what adulthood entails. Once upon a time, that perspective was more or less naturalised within the blockbuster, but over the last decade we’ve seen the emergence of a wave of a films that might be described as how-to guides for adults: how to be parents, how to hold down a job, how to hold down a marriage, how to hold down property. Several of these, such as What To Expect When You’re Expecting and He’s Just Not That Into You, have actually been based on self-help books targeted at adulthood. Others, such as Garry Marshall’s trilogy of films centred around significant days in the American secular calendar – Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and now Mother’s Day – have aimed to fuse that self-help imperative with an older brand of American ensemble blockbuster, as well as an older kind of cinematic scope and presence.
Out of those three films, Mother’s Day is undoubtedly the most fully-formed, as well as the most akin to your old-fashioned traditional blockbuster. Whereas Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve were set largely on their respective holidays, Mother’s Day dwells on the buildup to Mother’s Day as much as the day itself, which gives it a different kind of momentum and a little more room to breathe. Without going into too much detail about the plot, we’re presented with five mothers: Sandy (Jennifer Aniston), whose husband (Timothy Olyphant) has just married his twenty-something girlfriend; Jesse (Kate Hudson), who still hasn’t been able to tell her mother (Margo Martindale) that she married an Indian doctor; Gabi, Jesse’s sister, who also can’t manage to tell their mother that she is gay; Kristin (Britt Robertson), who can’t quite bring herself to commit to the man she loves; and Miranda (Julia Roberts), a Shopping Network presenter who is haunted by the daughter she gave up for adoption.
Among that group of women, several key ideas of adulthood – and what it means to be a adult – emerge over the course of the film, all of which are contoured by the Atlanta backdrop, which plays a fairly prominent role in stitching their various stories together. In American cinema and television, Atlanta is often used as a venue for right-wing worldviews that want to construe themselves as centrist common sense, and that’s very much the case here. When Jesse and Gabi’s parents finally arrive from Texas in their mobile home, they’re so ludicrously stereotyped and caricatured that they momentarily turn the film into something akin to National Lampoon’s Mother’s Day, offering up a vision of the Deep South only to qualify it with Atlanta’s more moderate South. Of course, Texas isn’t technically part of the South, but within the film’s imagination it represents the point at which South becomes too South, with the film espousing what might be described as Middle South values in its staunch belief that even the most unusual lifestyles can ultimately be contained under the rubric of marriage, family and domestic harmony.
As a result, the film rotates through virtually every protected class – race, sexual orientation, different ability – only to integrate them into its vision of hearth and home, creating a series of coming-out moments that feel over before they’re begun. Whether or not Mother’s Day is actually speaking to an audience that believe accepting Indian immigrants is a massive gesture is unclear, but the overall effect is to give the impression of every liberal tendency in the United States being absorbed and contained by the homey domesticity promulgated by this particular version of Atlanta. In many ways, that seamless and continuous assimilation would rob the film of a great deal of its tension, were there not one “minority” class that is never fully accepted or assimilated: single mothers, and unmarried women more generally. While these five mothers all have very different stories – in some respects – they are united by the fact that they are all alienated, at some point, from either their husbands or their children (or both), and in every case the result is unanimously catastrophic, producing a profusion of hysterical outbursts and manic gesticulations that seem designed to present as funny, but often feel patronising – or disturbing – more than anything else.
In many ways, however, I thought that these moments were amongst the strongest – or the most affecting – in the entire film, just because of how eloquently they captured the extraordinary pressure on women to single-handedly prop up the nuclear family ideal. While the film has no dearth of single male fathers and characters, they’re either presented as players or bemused bumblers trying to hold off a hoard of terrifyingly horny housewives. As more and more different lifestyles are subsumed under the aegis of marriage, the film seems to suggest, the pressure on women to advertise marriage also intensifies. The result is quite an artful combination of liberal and conservative agendas in which the film ultimately – if implicitly – seems quite opposed to expanding the definition of marriage but only because marriage is already so oppressive to women. Certainly, the official version of the film’s message takes just the opposite stance, but as in so many Lifetime films and melodramas – and this often plays as a television melodrama – it is only by over-identifying with the norm that the norm is punctured, especially when we’re presented with the kinds of delirious hyperbole on display here.
Nevertheless, even the most relaxed, comic moments can’t conceal a pervasive anxiety, which surely has as much to do with the viability of the film itself as a film and as a blockbuster as anything else. Whereas blockbusters once normalised the lives and spaces of the ultra-wealthy as the stuff of everyday life, it’s become harder and harder to make that connection in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, with the result that the “everyday” spaces of American mainstream cinema have become more and more pointedly dissociated from the everyday lives of those Americans targeted by blockbusters, as well as more and more pointedly dissociated from the demotic space of the multiplex itself (after all, it’s hard to imagine any of these characters ever visiting their local multiplex). Nowhere has that dissociation been more pronounced than in Mother’s Day, where the ultra-wealth of the characters often makes their possessions, pursuits and rituals feel almost science-fictional in their remoteness, as well as lending the downbeat, soulful “relatable” moments – usually heart-to-hearts between Jennifer Aniston and Kate Hudson – a weirdly flaccid, imploded quality, as if they’ve simply been transplanted wholesale from another cinematic universe.
As a result, the real momentum and business of the film often occurs between scenes, with all of the characters’ anxieties ceaselessly deflected into an obsession with exercise that ensures that barely five minutes go by without some exchange playing out against a gym, a pilate session, a run, or some other kind of high-octane training regimen. To some extent, these exercise sequences play as a kind of internal montage, incorporating the rhythm and movement of montage into the connective tissue of the film, as well as connecting the interior and exterior spaces of Atlanta for quite a fully-formed and kinetic evocation of the cityscape. At the same time, they clarify how much exercise culture – and especially the culture of personal trainers – has become a province of the elite, with the characters deflecting and redirecting all their yearning for upward mobility into their bodies, since it’s impossible, by this point in American cinema, for any of us to really believe that they have any further to ascend or any more wealth to accrue.
So incessant is the exercise, in fact, that it almost single-handedly provides the film with its manic, hallucinatory edge, to the point where it feels as if the characters are exercising just to keep the film going. As the distinction between exercise and non-exercise scenes gradually dissolves, we’re presented with a weird kind of method acting in which every scene seems to designed to instruct adults on how to position, hold and carry themselves as adults. More like a training video than a romantic comedy at times, it feels made for a generation of exercisers who have managed to entirely incorporate fitness into their daily chores, thanks to the inventions of FitBits and other digital accoutrements, and it often feels as if even the most dramatic emotional sequences are doubling as object lessons in how to wring the best workouts from one’s immediate domestic surroundings and experiences, even as the domestic environments that suffuse the film are clearly unavailable to anyone but the very wealthiest of the wealthy.
There is, however, one exception to this manic energy – Julia Roberts who, as a presenter for the Shopping Network, is nearly always presented in a static, slightly staid and relatively consistent posture, sequestered from the rest of the film in a similar manner to Valentine’s Day, where she spent nearly all of the action on a plane seat, miles above the kinetic Los Angeles ensemble drama unfolding manically below. In both cases that sequestration plays as cinematic classicism, although it’s especially clear in Mother’s Day, given how extensively the rest of the ensemble cast are drawn from televisual roles, with Jennifer Aniston, Margo Martindale and Timothy Olyphant all seeming to recall their small-screen selves than any other cinematic appearances. From Notting Hill onwards, Roberts has felt like the ideal vehicle for capturing both the particular celebrity allure of the 90s and its subsequent waning, and here her presence often plays as a kind of elegy for the grand old big screen blockbuster experience, as her classically cinematic charisma is subsumed into a character who spends her entire life on television and addressing a television camera.
If the film is something of a tribute to Roberts, then, it makes sense that Hector Elizondo appears as her manager in a throwback to Pretty Woman. While Elizondo has repeated that role a million times in the last twenty-five years – he’s even credited as “of course, Hector Elizondo” – this feels a bit like it might be the last time he reprises it. Between them, Roberts and Elizondo feel like a swan song for a time when movie release dates could act as a flashpoint and a day in the secular calendar in the same way as the holidays that Garry Marshall’s trilogy of films depict. While there are hints towards the end that Father’s Day may be on its way fairly soon, it feels right that the trilogy should end here – and end as a trilogy – with what amounts to an elegy for the blockbuster at the peak of its powers, made for a time in which the big screen feels less and less capable of commanding our attention.