As the fall cultural season approaches, we’re about to enter that yearly phase of Hollywood high-mindedness when even bourgeois indie filmmakers become social-justice warriors bucking for prizes. The rom-com Crazy Rich Asians already got an early start, and critics dutifully saluted its pageant of economic disparity as a tribute to ethnic diversity. Critics revealed themselves by patronizing the Asian Other while they swooned over Shanghai as an oasis for guilt-free one-percenters. More insidiously, the film’s wealthy family tribe is presented, without question, as the foundation of envied class entitlement. But bourgie critics can’t be trusted. They’ve already overlooked the best family movie of 2018 so far — Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad — which dismantles all the SJW assumptions of Crazy Rich Asians and is too good to ignore.
Brent and Kendall (played by Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair), suburban parents of a teen and preteen, are feeling middle-class, almost middle-age, dissatisfaction when a viral TV signal or electromagnetic pulse inexplicably prompts a culture-wide rampage: Parents seek revenge by killing their own offspring. Through this harrowing concept, Taylor explores how Millennials suffer the effects of an ethically unmoored upbringing. It’s one thing to condemn the dishonesty of ruling-class media folk and politicians who govern our society’s self-image, but think about it in familial terms: Their unscrupulous behavior affects their offspring by killing them morally through acts of self-righteous egotism from generation to generation.
Mom and Dad might be too smart for the room. Director-writer Taylor formerly teamed with Mark Neveldine to create the fast-paced gonzo satires Crank; Crank: High Voltage; Gamer; and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance that went beyond the ultra-cynical expectations of “smart” (meaning gullible) film enthusiasts accustomed to banal Hollywood sentiments. Neveldine and Taylor’s technical bravura and moral temerity pushed viewers to the shocking, hilarious edge of dystopian farce. Taylor, on his own in Mom and Dad, continues this method of bold, abstract social commentary.
We need a movie that deals with the ethical and emotional turmoil we’re all going through, and films such as Crazy Rich Asians, Hereditary, The First Purge, BlacKkKlansman, A Quiet Place, Infinity Wars, and Get Out are insufficient, given their varying levels of cynicism, stupidity, and shallow dishonesty. But Mom and Dad, as its title suggests, satirizes the root of our cultural and political crisis while projecting its apocalyptic potential. Every politician, pundit, Internet poster, and public spectator reflects a familial code (“Barbarism Begins at Home” the Smiths sang), and Mom and Dad only heightens the frustration and retaliation hidden within that universal discipleship.
Inspired by the millennial madness, Taylor begins daringly with references to recent instances of cultural insanity. Daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and her boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) first evoke the extenuating circumstances of Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel’s disastrous phone conversation that compounded racial and adolescent impudence. (The film’s racial undercurrent is hilariously subtle.) Taylor folds in adult resentment, plus the specter of domestic violence — the casual hostility (“I’ll kill you!”) unrelated to sex but tied to deeply suppressed rage.
When Carly whines “whatever” to her mother’s entreaties, Kendall says, “I really, really hate when you say that.” Young enough to rue her own cheeky adolescence, Kendall speaks with wounded maturity: “We’re a family. That means, you love each other when you can’t stand each other. And you give a shit even when you don’t give a shit.”
Taylor’s viewpoint is post-sentimental, yet it’s also moral. (A high-school teacher confiscates student cell phones streaming crude and obscene pop songs and advises, “You kids need to go to church.”) This surpasses the fake Biblical deconstruction of Darren Aronofsky’s preposterous Mother. The teacher’s lecture on consumerism explains “planned obsolescence” as Darwinian family theory:
It refers to products designed with a predetermined limited lifespan. Products that are literally built to die, that is, to become unfashionable or nonfunctional. The idea is to manipulate the consumer to constantly want to buy a new one. The same thing can happen in nature. Hold that thought.
Culture shock is Taylor’s raison d’être. Among the satiric TV broadcasts in Mom and Dad are Dr. Mehmet Oz’s discourses on “savaging,” the animal kingdom’s habit of generational cannibalism that, when practiced by humans, leads off cable TV’s breaking news: “Terror Plot or Mass Hysteria?” That we no longer know which is which makes Mom and Dad’s storytelling virtuosic — like Greek tragedy combined with Greek comedy. The scene of parents hungrily awaiting the end of the school day, or of new fathers salivating against the window of a hospital nursery, pointedly reverses the school-shooting mass anxiety on TV news. Sophocles or Aristophanes might approve.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, from 1963, was the last comparable horror comedy. The Birds’ cinematic poetry allows more than one interpretation, but the one thing Mom and Dad pinpoints as a cause for social chaos — media — demands that we follow dreadful modern trends to their most terrifying possibilities. Taylor doesn’t have Hitchcock’s masterful eloquence, just postpunk, postmodern speed, using brilliant, fast-edited narrative ellipses. His mischievous use of video tropes and scrutiny of the media’s impact on our private lives condense the breakdown of family and social relations. Taylor’s jokey exasperation resembles the media blame and opposition that George W. S. Trow wrestled with in his book-length cultural critique, Within the Context of No Context (1981).
Movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Get Out and Mother deprive us of moral and political context. Taylor’s manic sophistication retrieves that lost context. He disrupts his scarifying narrative with flashbacks that are the finest cinematic drama of recent years. One is machine-parts salesman Brent’s lament over a family-room pool table: “I remember that kid I used to be.” The other is Kendall’s motherhood lament: “There’s this bigger thing. All your life you know it’s coming. Everything is building to that moment, and then it happens, and no matter what you thought it would be, it’s not like that.” These confessions carry resonance from Cage’s outré filmography (Vampire’s Kiss, Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, Matchstick Men) and Blair’s outré characterizations (Cruel Intentions, Storytelling, A Dirty Shame). Their all-American middle-class idiosyncrasy is put in the context of idealized domesticity, proclaimed on a wall-size motto:
In this house We Do I’m Sorry. We Do Second Chances. We Do Fun. We Do Hugs. We Do Really Loud. We Do Mistakes. We Do Forgiveness. We Do Family. We do LOVE.
Mom and Dad ruthlessly satirizes the unacknowledged delusions of American family life and society. Taylor does it with surprising sensitivity. Cage and Blair’s pool-table conversation is the movie scene of the year, but it may be matched by a father-child bonding scene in which dad and son discuss a vintage family heirloom, a Ford Firebird coup. The blue-sky rite-of-passage memory is visually harmonized with the kid’s red-white-and-blue Bomb Pop popsicle. In this image, Pop Art meets patriotism, whimsy, family affection, and national tradition. Its wit, poise, reflection, and irony surpass such junk as Crazy Rich Asians and Get Out, making Mom and Dad the most American of American movies this year.