Romantic-comedies are as popular as ever. The basic recipe hasn’t changed: people find love and live happily ever after. It’s predictable, sure, but so are sugar cookies, and Americans gleefully wolf down both.
Today’s romantic-comedies are different from previous iterations not in kind but in color. They’re more inclusive, more surprising and more comfortable with taking risks.
Sometimes these New Rom-Coms end not quite as happily, almost bittersweet, such as in “Someone Great.” Most often, they present characters we seldom meet in the movies, such as in “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Love, Simon” or “Always Be My Maybe.”
“Otherhood,” a new film on Netflix about three suburban mothers reconnecting with their adult sons, is an exemplar of the New Rom-Com. It’s still about relationships and the slippery affair of love over time.
But its basic conceit is to substitute romantic love for parental love. The main drama is not about securing sex but about what happens after sex—offspring, and how they relate to the people who made them. Instead of watching new relationships start and stumble, the centerpiece of the old rom-com, we observe six lives in media res, trying to repair inter-generational bonds that have gone weak from neglect.
“Otherhood” has charm and occasional laughs. It almost works in the way that an underbaked sheet of cookies still tastes good, even if it occasionally makes you queasy.
The film centers on three middle-aged mothers in the suburbs of New York City. There’s Carol (Angela Bassett), a widow in an immaculate house she’s refused to leave since her husband died. There’s Gillian (Patricia Arquette), an overbearing mother waiting for her frustratingly unmarried son to find the one. And there’s Helen (Felicity Huffman), a rich divorcee who still resents her ex-husband, adrift of her gay son.
These three women have been friends since their three sons, now grown and living in New York, were childhood best friends. They still live in suburbia and get together every so often to shoot the breeze over drinks. It’s a happy affair, until it isn’t. At their yearly Mother’s Day meet-up, the moms spill the various ways their no-good children are snubbing them — never visiting their dear old mothers, let alone calling on the holidays.
Soon the mothers have worked themselves into a frenzy. So in a drunken fit of a maternal justice, they storm the city to confront their wayward children. The sons are, expectedly, annoyed at the unannounced drop-in.
What follows are a series of conflicts, negotiations, stumbles, laughs and epiphanies about the meaning of modern motherhood. Everyone loves everyone, no doubt. But it becomes apparent that some of the characters haven’t said so much to one another in years, if ever.
The premise works terrifically. Watching three mothers harangue, cajole and embarrass their adult sons has a certain satisfaction, not to mention humor, in our era of women’s empowerment and recognition. “Otherhood” could easily have been about three childhood best friends trying to tame adulthood in the big city. Those trials of romance are still there, but we see them through the eyes of the characters’ mothers. It’s a successful spin on an otherwise old story.
The film’s primary flaw is that it fights off dullness until it and we are blue in the face. In its last half “Otherhood” ratchets up the drama, and the plot twists more than a teenager’s dirty bath towel. As the mothers feud with themselves and their sons over matters trivial and monumental, the feature film becomes something more akin to a soap opera.
Speaking of soap opera, it would be impossible to review the film without mentioning the off-screen drama of its star, Felicity Huffman, who recently pled guilty to fraud in the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal and thus delayed the film’s premiere. (This explains why a Mother’s Day movie was released more than two months after the May holiday.)
In “Otherhood,” Huffman’s character is something of a shopaholic who binge-buys clothes for her granddaughter. In real life, Huffman’s spending decisions — if a felony can be called such — were less gluttonous but all the more covetous.
As redemption, “Otherhood” might not suffice in the minds of viewers. A fine enough movie with a new enough take on old themes, it’s something trendier parents will be able to watch with their adult children.