‘Mom and Dad’ nearly impossible to digest, but works as pitch-black comedy
Michael Wahle Feb. 1, 2018
Art is so frequently intended to be a source of enjoyment, we can easily forget that art is also wholly capable of terrifying, angering, disturbing or, as is often the case with the new horror-dark comedy “Mom and Dad,” all three.
Directed and penned by Brian Taylor, “Mom and Dad” (Rated R) focuses on a day in the life of the Ryan family, who live in an ordinary suburban community and are suffering from typical familial problems.
Mother Kendall (Selma Blair) feels like she’s losing touch with her social media-obsessed teenage daughter, Carly (Anne Winters), who is often at odds with little brother, Josh (Zackary Arthur), while father Brent (Nicolas Cage, in a “welcome back” turn) is openly wary of Carly dating an older boy from her high school, all while he suppresses the classic symptoms of his own midlife crisis.
Though the Ryans are navigating their way through palpable family drama, there are no signs (other than some of Taylor’s intentionally disorienting elements both with the camera and on the page) that they are anything less than a loving, generally stable family.
That stability, however, gets put to the ultimate test for the Ryans — and for every family in the nation at large — when a mass hysteria triggered by unknown causes erupts, resulting in parents being overcome by an uncontrollable compulsion to (get ready for it) murder their children.
Think that’s a tough log line to read? Imagine watching it unfold on the screen. But it’s clear that Taylor’s screenplay isn’t a mere straw-grasping attempt at shock value; on the contrary, it’s a crafted, albeit troubling, attempt to explore the frustrations of parenting through the lens of a full-blown bonkers allegory. And as hard a sell as it is, Taylor’s narrative features undeniable successes throughout, particularly in its frequent offerings of challenging yet sharp, pitch-black comedy.
A scene at a hospital in which a gathering of brand-new fathers glare at their newborns through the nursery windows, jarring and absurdist as the moment may be, induces an inevitable laugh from audience members, who can’t help but be amused by the sheer irony.
No one will accuse “Mom and Dad” of being executed perfectly; indeed, Taylor’s exploration of his script’s themes feels a little undercooked overall. But despite its checkered effectiveness in compelling audience members to reflect on their own lives, “Mom and Dad” is never, for even an instant, dull.
“Mom and Dad’s” gripping proceedings are enabled not only by Taylor maintaining a steady hand over his utterly gonzo scenario, but also by the willingness of the entire cast to buy into and embrace the chaos.
Cage, of course, has reaped a calling card for playing characters with manic, over-the-top energy, but Cage’s performance here feels like his first in ages in which the frenzy is on his terms. After a long, lifeless string of straight-to-Redbox, “let’s pay off all of my debt” flops that feel more like a prison sentence than a list of credits, Cage finally looks as if he’s enjoying himself again, and it’s a delight to witness.
But the real star here is Blair. The seasoned actress’ portrayal of genuinely loving, concerned wife/mother Kendall is so earnest and worthy of our sympathies, that we in the audience become convinced that she’ll be the chosen one who somehow fends off this ugly pandemic. And when she falls victim to it just like every other parent we’ve witnessed, her facial expressions transforming seamlessly from affectionate to bloodthirsty, the heartbreak we experience is exactly what Taylor wants us to endure.
Undoubtedly, “Mom and Dad” will lose some audience members at the log line; and that’s their right as viewers. But for those who are game for a cinematic challenge, Taylor has woven a tale that, though it may be bereft of pure enjoyment, is certainly not without artistic merit.
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