Holiday Horrors: Marshall botches another holiday with lame, mawkish “Mother’s Day”

Mother’s Day (2016) 
118 min., rated PG-13.

“Mother’s Day” will be the third time director Garry Marshall has pulled together an attractive ensemble to fit into multiple stories for one big ode to another Hallmark holiday. The last two star-packed extravaganzas, 2010’s “Valentine’s Day” and 2011’s “New Year’s Eve,” weren’t much more than frothy, manufactured comfort food that one might catch on cable around their respective holidays without investing too much of their attention. Marshall has learned from the mistakes he made twice before by whittling the number of stories down to four, but with one screenwriter turning into four—Tom Hines, Lily Hollander, Anya Kochoff (2005’s “Monster-in-Law”) and Matthew Walker—“Mother’s Day” still repeats the same problems and then adds a whole new set that it's hard to know where to begin. It’s obvious, mawkish and vanilla, and then sometimes it’s even insultingly lame and inept.

Hopscotching all around Atlanta during the week before the second Sunday in May to check in with mothers (and in one case, a single father), “Mother’s Day” starts with Sandy (Jennifer Aniston), a divorced interior designer who has an amiable relationship with her ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) with whom she has two sons. That all changes when he unloads the news that he eloped with a sexy, younger, Twitter-savvy woman (Shay Mitchell), resulting in a lonely and insecure Sandy. Sandy’s friend is Jesse (Kate Hudson), who lives next door to sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke). They’re both so estranged from their backwards Texas parents (Margo Martindale, Robert Pine) that they’ve lied about their personal lives; Jesse is married to Indian-American doctor Russell (Aasif Mandvi) and they have two sons, and Gabi is married to a woman named Max (Cameron Esposito) and they have a son. Guess who makes a surprise visit?

Meanwhile, Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is a widowed gym owner with two daughters. It’s his first year without his late Marine wife (Jennifer Garner), and the ladies at his gym try getting him back out there in the dating field. Could he run into a fellow single parent of the opposite sex, like Sandy, at the grocery store? While we’re at it, Kristin (Britt Robertson) and Zack (Jack Whitehall) are a young unmarried couple with a baby girl. She has cold feet about marriage, while the British bloke moonlights as a bartender and stand-up comic, and it might have something to do with being adopted and wanting to find her biological mother. Throughout all of this, on every TV that plays the Home Shopping Network, career-driven host Miranda Collins (Julia Roberts) smiles on and promotes her Mother’s Day mood pendants. Where does she fit in? Is she an alien hellbent on taking all the mothers to her mother ship?

Bland and creatively bankrupt (that is, unless you count Julia Roberts re-wearing the same wig she wore in that fake astronaut movie in “Notting Hill” as a sort-of wink-nudge joke), “Mother’s Day” is about as authentic as a silk flower arrangement. Director Garry Marshall, bless his heart, seems so out of touch from anything remotely human or current with a hacky, hammy directorial style. Too often, Marshall aims for allegedly crowd-pleasing laughs in ways that just come off pandering and/or wrong-headed. The situational comedy with Jesse and Gabi’s racist, homophobic parents is already annoyingly broad, and the fact that these caricatures’ reliance on hitting one note of bigotry is actually being played for laughs just makes everyone involved look tone-deaf. Who actually thought it would be hilarious for an Indian-American to be called a “towel head” by his mother-in-law in a movie supposedly celebrating mothers? That same mother-in-law's grandson is named Tanner, so she can rip on the color of his skin, too. And a little person turning out to be the manager of Shorty’s Saloon? Let us not even speak of the dopey police-chase slapstick involving a runaway RV and a Mother’s Day parade float shaped like a uterus. Most of the attempts at poignancy clang as well, including the false moment where stand-up comic Zack wins the crowd over for taking his adorable baby daughter up on stage, not for his sub-par jokes. One thing “Mother’s Day” at least improves upon from “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” is that these characters do talk about other things besides the upcoming titular holiday. To counterbalance that, the script is noticeably stuffed with plenty of insipid dialogue to go around instead. For instance, “I have abandonment issues,” Kristin states before whining about being adopted. Or, when Bradley's eldest daughter comes into the room as he watches a video of his late wife singing karaoke and comments, "Mom loved karaoke." Groan.

The star-powered cast tries, even when the material isn’t helping them. As Sandy, Jennifer Aniston fares the best out of anyone in that she actually gets to be charming, funny and honest. Whether she’s running late to a job interview and ripping her blouse, having a rant in her car in the grocery store parking lot, or telling her ex that his new hot wife “can have [her sons] for Flag Day,” Aniston deserves the credit, not the script. Growing into an endearing comic presence, Jason Sudeikis is very likable as Bradley, and he and Aniston who last co-starred together in 2013’s “We’re the Millers” share a nice enough chemistry together that someone ought to write them their own smart romantic comedy. It’s too bad the writing still lets Sudeikis down, forcing him into a dumb, forced gag involving getting his teenage daughter tampons at the grocery store and then having to rap Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” before having a great fall over a wall (get it?). Kate Hudson is a winning presence even though her film choices have been questionable, but even here, her screen time is wasted on nonsensical character lies, offensive racial humor and unfunny wackiness. Sarah Chalke is also a welcome sight, making one want to see her in movies more often and ones that are much better than this. Britt Robertson and Jack Whitehall are appealing as the film's token young mother and father, but not only does their story feel the most wedged-in, their history as a couple is underwritten and, thus, low-stakes. Behind that famous mega-watt smile and one unfortunate strawberry-blonde bob wig, Julia Roberts must be doing her director another favor to thank him for her beginning success in “Pretty Woman,” but once her character thaws out, she has a nice moment or two.

There are no two ways about it: “Mother’s Day” is not a good movie, but there is a constant tug-of-war between it being an innocuous time-filler and a wacky sitcom hell, and the latter wins out. Doing nobody any favors, this also has to be one of the most amateurishly edited theatrical releases seen in quite some time, erratically cutting to one of the other storylines without telling us anything new and then not letting a scene play out long enough. Not to mention, there is an absurd amount of clumsy line dubbing when actors’ backs are turned to the camera; wasted frames with pointless, baffling cutaways; and the worst kind of mugging from extras who are ill-advisedly given too many reaction shots and gratuitous lines. Apparently, a bunch of movie stars weren't enough, so Garry Marshall let his friends and family each get their own frame. Like the frustrating struggle of finding a Hallmark card that isn't cloying in its heartfelt words or clunky in its effort to be funny, "Mother's Day" doesn't even deserve to be seen by the special ladies who brought us all into this world. 

Grade: D +