summer movies 2016

Why Bad Moms Succeeded Where Ghostbusters Failed

Photo: Sony Pictures; STX Productions

This past weekend Bad Moms passed $95 million domestically, continuing on a trajectory that will surely have it clearing $100 million by this time next week. Soon to join it is the unabashedly juvenile Sausage Party, which finished this weekend at $80 million. No matter where the two movies wind up, their box-office yields will be seen as huge wins for their studios, since both films cost about $20 million to make. In a summer of flops, their success is noteworthy, especially when compared to the relative failures of two of the year’s most-hyped comedies: Neighbors 2 and Ghostbusters. What that contrast reminds us is that few things are better friends to comedy than low stakes.

The weekend before Ghostbusters was released, our sister site the Cut wrote “Seeing Ghostbusters on Opening Weekend Could Actually Help Fix Hollywood Sexism.” Though the point was correct — Hollywood is in the business of repeating things that work — the piece also inadvertently contributed to a conversation about the movie that I would argue hurt its box office. When talking with comedy-minded female friends who skipped the movie, I kept hearing the same thing: A person’s position on the movie, and their decision whether to see it, had come to feel like taking a political position. For moviegoers who consider lighthearted movies a chill thing to do after a stressful week of work — which is to say, most moviegoers — that’s not the sort of mind-set you want your expensive summer action-comedy to engender. Seeing Ghostbusters ceased to feel like a fun, breezy summertime decision.

Bad Moms, on the other hand, arrived with little fanfare, and it explicitly fights against the burden of expectations placed on women. As the movie portrays them, “good” moms are perfect, doing everything society demands of them, which leaves little time for fun. “Bad” moms aren’t perfect, but they at least enjoy themselves. While developing the movie, co-writers Scott Moore and Jon Lucas threw parties for their wives and friends to learn more about the pressures they felt as mothers — and when asked what he hoped good moms took away from the film, Moore said, “Just to do less.” That’s an appealing pitch for audiences looking to relax and laugh for 90 minutes. It doesn’t matter that Bad Moms, in terms of pure comedy and filmmaking, isn’t as good of a movie as Ghostbusters; if anything, that helps. Bad Moms — which has a tremendous cast, including a deeply strange performance by Kristen Bell that may be the funniest thing I saw all summer — is junk food you eat in your car. Ghostbusters, through no fault of its own, couldn’t let many viewers feel so carefree.

Neighbors 2 underperformed in part due to a similar set of societal circumstances. Grossing just $55m domestically (nearly $100m less than its first installment), it became trapped in a prison of its own wokeness. Sample headlines:

A Seth Rogen Movie Is Somehow the Wokest, Most Feminist Movie of the Year So Far
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising Is Only Woke About the Need to Be Woke
Neighbors 2 Is, Somehow, a Wildly Funny Feminist Comedy
The Bullshit Feminism of Neighbors 2

I’m not here to re-litigate whether it’s actually woke (okay, I will, it’s not), but to point out that this debate ended up defining this movie — and this debate, though valuable, is not fun. It doesn’t sound like an escape.

You can say a lot about Sausage Party (stuff like: “It’s not very good”), but “it’s woke” is not one of them. Freewheeling in its use of ethnic stereotypes, it is proudly offensive. Political correctness is not in and of itself is bad for comedy, but the attendant liberal guilt sure can be. Both Neighbors 2 and Ghostbusters suffered at the box office because they intentionally or otherwise became part of political conversations, and that polarized audiences. Some of that cultural resonance can’t be avoided; some of it shouldn’t be avoided. But what the continued success of Bad Moms and Sausage Party reinforces is that sometimes — especially in our current, hypersensitive, politically charged culture — it isn’t what people hear about a comedy that draws them in. It’s what they don’t hear.

Why Bad Moms Succeeded Where Ghostbusters Failed