Review: Moms’ Night Out (dir. Jon & Andrew Erwin, 2014)

Review: Moms’ Night Out (dir. Jon & Andrew Erwin, 2014) May 21, 2014

I saw Moms’ Night Out over a week ago and have been meaning to say something about it ever since, but until now I’ve had to juggle a couple of work assignments as well as the usual distractions that come with being a stay-at-home dad — and that’s kind of fitting, given that the film’s main character is a stay-at-home parent who also has a blog of her own.

So I can kind of relate to Allyson (Sarah Drew), the film’s protagonist. When, say, her kids and the messes they make drive her nuts, but she finds that she just can’t bear to paint over the stick-figure portraits that the kids have drawn on the wall, I know exactly what she’s going through.

And yet, I’m also quite conscious of the fact that this movie wasn’t exactly made for people like me. It’s a movie about moms, and it quite consciously extols the virtues of motherhood while portraying dads as the kind of people who are easily panicked and overwhelmed when someone asks them to “babysit” their own kids for a few hours.

As a friend observed on Facebook, this sort of humour may have had the ring of truth in the 1950s, on shows like I Love Lucy etc. But today? When quite a number of dads — including myself — stay home to look after their kids, and even those that don’t are more inclined to change diapers and whatnot than their fathers were? Not so much.

I’m not inclined to make a big issue of this aspect of the film, though. While the gender roles here may be a bit archaic (and lines like “I’m listening to my husband. That’s biblical, right?” certainly won’t make sense to anyone outside of a certain Christian subculture), I actually found myself thinking that the film went out of its way to show at least some diversity among its characters, and I found the film more inclusive as a whole than, say, the deeply us-versus-them God’s Not Dead.

For starters: The titular “moms’ night out” starts out with three women: Allyson, her best friend Izzy (Andrea Logan White), and their pastor’s wife Sondra (Patricia Heaton). Izzy, as best as I can recall, is about the same age as Allyson and has kids the same age as hers. But Sondra is older and has just one teenaged daughter.

And then they are joined by Allyson’s sister-in-law Bridget (Abbie Cobb), who is younger than all of them and is also a single mom whose ex-partner was supposed to be looking after the baby but, it turns out, is not. So there’s a bit of an age spread there, and there is even a judgment-free acknowledgement of the fact that single mothers do exist. Single or married, a mom is a mom.

Also, if memory serves, the film never indicates that Bridget herself is a Christian. This could be read in one of two ways: The less charitable view would would be that, in the filmmakers’ world, there are no Christian single moms. But I prefer to infer that the filmmakers wanted to be more inclusive and acknowledge the fact that Christians have non-Christian relatives and it doesn’t make them any less family.

Beyond that, there are other little details that complicate things just a tad. My favorite is the fact that Allyson’s minivan has bumper stickers for homeschooling and eating organic. (She’s practically a “crunchy con”!) Coming so soon after God’s Not Dead, which made a point of associating vegetarianism with hostile atheism, it was nice to see that Moms’ Night Out wasn’t entirely against “progressive” food trends.

The film also tries, less successfully, to suggest that Sondra, the pastor’s wife, had a “wild” past that she has been hiding from her daughter. (She even has a tattoo that her daughter has never, ever seen, which suggests that she’s been going out of her way to keep it hidden.) Exactly what this “wild” life consisted of is never really spelled out, though, and that vagueness ultimately works against this subplot.

However, the film’s efforts to humanize the pastor’s wife do end up leading to one of my favorite moments in the film:

When the women are at a bowling alley, and Izzy is playing her turn, Sondra and Allyson have a brief conversation which ends with Sondra thanking Allyson for inviting her to the “night out”, and thanking her for giving her a chance to be one of the moms — one of the women — for a few hours and not just “the pastor’s wife.”

At that point, Izzy finishes her turn, so Allyson gets up to play, and Izzy sits down and asks Sondra the sort of question that one would ask of a pastor’s wife — and as she does, Allyson watches as Sondra assumes her “pastor’s wife” face again. The facade came down for a few moments, and now it has gone back up.

This scene, which I found rather poignant, is the sort of moment that I live for in film, when a character receives a private and unexpected insight, however brief, into the inner workings of another character’s mind. That moment alone makes this film way, way better than a film like God’s Not Dead, which has no curiosity about its characters at all. (Even the heroes of that film are just mouthpieces for its message.)

In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, Moms’ Night Out is a comedy, which makes it an interesting entry among this year’s “religious movies”.

The typical Christian film over the years has been driven by messages: They could be evangelistic messages or apologetic messages, designed to win people to Christ, or they could be more narrowly defined ministerial messages, encouraging people to be better parents, spouses and neighbours. But any way you slice it, “message” is key.

Comedies, on the other hand, tend to be more subversive. Comedies can certainly have messages and themes — Seth Rogen, in particular, has practically made a career out of raunchy R-rated comedies that celebrate the positive virtues of growing up, starting a family, and putting one’s friends first — but the best ones don’t preach at the audience, and they can sometimes get the audience to question certain pieties.

So, given that Christian films kind of exist precisely to promote certain pieties, there are certain limitations around what, exactly, a Christian comedy can do.

For what it’s worth, the particular style of comedy in Moms’ Night Out reminded me of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies: an anxious protagonist narrates the film in voice-over and introduces us to all her friends and relatives (who come across like exaggerations of real people) and lets us know how everything around her is constantly going wrong. It’s not the kind of humour that appeals to me personally, but hey, to each his own (or her own, as the case may be).

The message that comes through the humour in this film is pretty generic, indeed it is so standard as to be a cliché: the perfect life that Allyson wishes she had, and which she thinks other with-it moms might have, doesn’t exist, and it’s okay for her to just be herself (and, perhaps more to the point, to let her family be itself). So the only piety that is threatened here is the unrealistic expectation of perfection in this life.

With a theme as generalized as that, it’s not too hard to see why audiences didn’t turn out for this film the way they did for the other “faith-based” movies that have come out this year. God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real took a stand at the multiplex and planted a flag on behalf of belief. But Moms’ Night Out didn’t present the same opportunity for tribal chest-thumping; it didn’t give people something to rally around. Instead, its main selling point was that it had a PG rating, which signified that it was a “clean” comedy as opposed to all those PG-13 and R-rated comedies out there.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of the fact that the “faith-based” audience didn’t turn out for this film.

On the one hand, if you’re going to make a fairly generic comedy, then the fact that it happens to depict regular churchgoers isn’t a compelling enough reason for actual churchgoers to see your film instead of one of the other films out there. (Also: if you’re a Christian filmmaker and you want to make clean comedies that everyone — not just members of the Christian community — can enjoy, then you might as well work within the mainstream. See, for an animated example, the original Hoodwinked!.)

On the other hand, it would be nice if Christians supported a movie made by one of their own without doing so as part of some sort of “culture war”.

Sadly, the “faith-based” audience tends to turn out for “faith-based” movies when doing so is perceived as an act of confrontation (“taking a stand”, “voting with your dollars”, etc.). If The Passion of the Christ is controversial and under attack from “liberals”, audiences turn out in droves. If God’s Not Dead takes a stand against atheism — and if it is promoted by its fans as the positive alternative to a controversial film like Noah, which did not cater sufficiently to certain evangelical sensibilities — audiences turn out in droves. Even the Kendrick brothers, whose films are not inherently divisive, owe their fame to a trumped-up controversy over the fact that one of their films got a PG rating (which, bizarrely, was seen at the time as some sort of anti-Christian move on the part of the movie industry).

Moms’ Night Out lacked that kind of buzz, at least prior to its release, and so it had the lowest opening-weekend gross of any of the year’s “faith-based” movies.

Apparently, however, some secular critics lashed out at the film and called it “anti-feminist” and various other names. Thus, in the days leading up to the film’s second weekend at the box office, we began to see articles like this one and this one and this one and this one, cataloguing the critics who have slammed the film for cultural reasons, and quoting directors Jon and Andrew Erwin to the effect that such critics are being “intolerant”. And thus, defenders of the film began to spread e-mails telling people to “vote” with their box-office dollars and “stand up” for “our way of life”.

And so a film that initially prided itself on its cross-over appeal ended up becoming the focal point for yet another culture-war skirmish. Though in this case, rallying the base didn’t work, as the film still fell 58.9% at the box office in its second week.

Incidentally, it isn’t just secular critics who have slammed the film. One week before the movie opened, the Blaze posted a scathing review by Sam Sorbo, wife of God’s Not Dead star Kevin Sorbo. She found the film insufficiently Christian — and also wondered why Allyson wanted a night out with the girls instead of a date night with her husband, who is constantly away on business trips. Sorbo also objected to a scene in which a “jerk” is hit by a car and goes “flipping through the air” — which is kind of funny, considering what happened to Sorbo’s husband in God’s Not Dead.

The fact that Sorbo came out so strongly against Moms’ Night Out — and associated herself with God’s Not Dead while doing so — is also quite striking in light of the fact that both films are produced, in part, by the same company, and that Andrea Logan White, who plays Allyson’s best friend Izzy, is married to the producer of both films, David A.R. White, who also played the main pastor in God’s Not Dead. (Not only that, but apparently the original idea for this film was Ms White’s, as well.)

Ah well. I do give the filmmakers points for trying. I appreciate the fact that this movie is less didactic or dogmatic than some of the other “faith-based” films out there. If only the same could be said for the discussion around this film, on all sides.

May 22 update: Brandon Hamil McKerley observes in the comments that I didn’t get around to saying whether I thought this comedy was actually, y’know, funny. And, well, like I said above, the type of humour embodied by this film isn’t quite my cup of tea, but I do remember laughing a few times. I just couldn’t tell you which scenes provoked said laughter. (I did take notes when I saw the film, and I looked for them before writing this post, but I couldn’t find them. I blame the kids, naturally.)

I do recall that I was on the restaurant hostess’s side during the argument over the meaning of “this week” versus “next week”, even if I disagreed with her general snootiness. But I can’t recall if I actually laughed during that scene.

I do think that the film’s commitment to being “safe” for Christian audiences holds it back from being as funny or accessible as it could have been. Certainly it’s hard to make a movie about an evening in which “everything goes wrong” when you know that, in a rigorously “clean” film like this, things can’t go that wrong.

For example, there are multiple scenes at a tattoo parlour, which I suppose is meant to feel kind of “edgy” or “dangerous”, but instead it’s as tame as anything you’d see in a church-based skit. The male receptionist’s airy flirtations are even rebuffed by Izzy, who scowls and says, “I’m married.” A more daring film would have allowed Izzy to be more… appreciative?… even as she shrugs them off or even laughs them off. Instead, you come away thinking that Izzy can’t take a compliment, or that she’s judging the guy, and that the filmmakers felt they needed to draw a firm line there.

And yet, there were moments in the film when I found myself thinking that the Christian subculture depicted by this film was a bit looser than what I grew up with. Allyson’s husband Sean (Sean Astin) plays “violent video games” with his friend Kevin (Kevin Downes), and this is presented as no big deal. (Allyson might object to those games being played around the kids, but no one ever asks if a Christian man should be playing them.) Sondra also says “Thank God” in one context that would have had certain friends and parents I knew asking, “Are you really thanking God…?”

Meanwhile, a friend of mine notes that Sorbo, in her review, repeatedly insinuates that this film is a product of “Hollywood”, when in fact it’s populated by veterans of the independent Christian movie scene — including the makers of What If… and Courageous, two films that Sorbo holds up as positive alternatives to this movie!

I already mentioned the fact that Moms’ Night Out is produced by David A.R. White, who has produced and/or acted in films like God’s Not Dead. But it is also directed by the Erwin brothers, who directed the pro-life drama October Baby; it was co-written by Andrea Gyertson Nasfell, who wrote What If…; it co-stars Kevin Downes, who directed and/or produced films like Mercy Streets and Six: The Mark Unleashed; and it stars real-life pastor Alex Kendrick, co-director of Courageous, as the pastor.

For Sorbo — whose husband has actually worked with some of these people — to suggest that their film is a product of secular “Hollywood” is profoundly strange. It makes me wonder what’s going on behind the scenes, there.

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