[Review] ‘Mom and Dad’ (2018) Is Underwhelming, But Admirable

“I want to trust you,” Selma Blair laments to her emotionally unengaged daughter, “but you don’t make it easy.” Almost ninety minutes later, the tables are turned. Selma and her husband (the always wonderful Nicolas Cage) are tied up, pleading for their children to release them, promising that their sudden onset of murderous urges – which have overtaken all of the parents in town – have subsided. “I want to trust you,” her daughter echoes, “but you don’t make it easy.” This should have been funny, or affecting, or noteworthy. Of these three, it’s only the latter – and then it’s only noteworthy for being neither funny nor affecting.

Present at my screening were two older gentleman, and me. One of them left around the halfway mark – almost immediately before it began to find its footing. The other stayed till the end, and seemed to like the film much more than I did. He probably had kids of his own.

I heard about the film by happenstance. Danielle Solzman, who writes at Solzy At The Movies, mentioned that she had seen the film, and that it had Nicolas Cage. I’d be hard-pressed to miss any new horror movie that’s playing in my area, and even harder pressed to miss a Nicolas Cage movie (the man’s our nation’s most valuable resource).

The film is directed by half of the team behind Crank, which is near the top of a tragically short list of action films from the from the 2000s that anyone will remember in 20 years (I can count them on my hands, and The Expendables is not one of them). Not unlike Brian Taylor’s previous work, Mom and Dad is frenetic; Shot on digital video, mostly in dizzying close-ups, and the Director of Photography shakes the camera mercilessly – or, mercifully, from a budgetary standpoint. Gore effects cost money, as do interesting set pieces, and Mom and Dad has neither (or, if it does, you wouldn’t know, because the camerawork disorients beyond the point at which the viewer can recognize the action on screen).

Also like Crank, Mom and Dad is tongue and cheek, or seems to think it is. The title sequence plays like an old Grindhouse flick crossed with an old “Bubblegum Romance,” which is promising enough until the film gets going. From the first scene one, it abandons its “throwback” trappings and instead veers back into familiar territory for Taylor.

A suburban mother parks her 1990s minivan on a railroad track and steps out as a train approaches. The van is whisked away, along with the child inside. Watching this on the news, Cage and Blair nod disapprovingly. “Before breakfast?” One of them scoffs. I chuckled nervously, and hoped this wasn’t an indication of what was to come.

But it was, as the film struggled to decide whether it wanted to be a modern Grindhouse flick, a gritty satire, or Crank-revisited. In the end, it was none of these – and nothing in particular, managing to be, at turns, both heartless and toothless. It’s regrettable indecision is perhaps best encapsulated in the way the music vacillates between some pretty sweet synth padding and a poor variation on the CSI: Miami theme. I wanted to like this movie, but it didn’t make it easy.

There were, nevertheless, moments of manic genius. One, in particular, stands out. In the middle of a midlife crisis, Nicolas Cage buys, among other things, a build-it-yourself pool table and a handgun. He smashes the pool table in a fit of rage in what is probably the most frequently-commented-on scene in the movie (aside, perhaps, from the newborn scene, which sounds more hair-raising than it is), but even more inspired is the gag with the handgun.

As they try to break down the door behind which their children have barricaded themselves, a bullet comes flying through the wood and nicks Blair on the shoulder. Furious, she turns to Cage and screams, “A gun? Really?” Cage retorts: “How else am I supposed to protect my family?” At her wit’s end, Blair replies: “Are you aware that one in five children die each year from self-inflicted gunshot wounds because their parents kept firearms in the house?”

The film is worth the price of admission for this scene alone, but gags like this are few and far between. I’ve struggled to decide whether to issue a positive review (albeit with serious caveats) or a negative review (albeit with serious commendations). I’ve landed on the former. Mom and Dad is, by all meaningful measurements, a misfire. Its issues lie not in the fact that it isn’t a straightforward “throwback” or “satire,” but in the fact that – even for what it is – it’s simply isn’t a particularly good movie.

But there are worse ways to spend an afternoon, and as a horror film that takes risks (even risks that don’t quite pan out) it’s commendable, even admirable. I’d suggest catching it before it leaves theaters.

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