No doubt, before Moms’ Night Out releases to theaters on Mother’s Day weekend, reviews in most mainstream outlets will use the term “Christian movie.” By that, I suppose they’ll mean that the film was made by and concerns characters who happen to be Christians. But while the label will work to sell the movie to certain audiences, it could also advertise some false impressions to those who associate “Christian movie” with treacly dramas full of moralizing dialogue and unrelatably upright characters. That’s too bad because while there’s plenty of heart in Moms’ Night Out (rated PG), what there’s far more of is something rarely (maybe never?) seen in films marketed as Christian—laughs.
The original mommy blogger Erma Bombeck once said that a thin line separates laughter and pain. As the first scene opens on Allyson (Sarah Drew) sitting at her computer confessing to the online world her struggle to respond lovingly when her three small children demolish her kitchen in order to “surprise” her with breakfast, many moms will chuckle and wince simultaneously. Their reaction will likely grow into guffaws and groans of recognition as the perpetually late Allyson screeches into the church parking lot, mascara smeared from applying in the car, screaming at her disheveled kids to hurry up, and wondering how all the other perfectly coiffed moms with their perfectly pressed kids do it.
Allyson’s feelings of unrest and inadequacy require some deep, intensive soul searching, but lacking the time for that, her husband, Sean (Sean Astin), agrees to a shorter-term solution. He and the other dads in their social circle will watch the kids so Allyson and her friends, including their pastor’s wife (Patricia Heaton) can put on high heels and enjoy a girl’s night out. From there, in the grand tradition of one-crazy-night movies, chaos ensues, leading the ladies everywhere from a tattoo parlor to a jail cell.
Back in 2011, when the Erwin brothers released their first film, the drama October Baby, I praised them for remaining focused on telling their story well rather than trying to advance an agenda. As a comedy, Moms’ Night Out draws on a lot of different directing skills, yet the Erwins once again stay centered on the characters and their experiences. They include biblical themes, but in a way that enhances the narrative naturally. Given that the movie’s sole moment of spiritual advice comes from the mouth of a grizzled biker played by country singer Trace Adkins, they manage to mine some humor out of their message as well.
The most impressive thing about the Erwins’ sophomore effort, however, is that the churchgoing believers that populate their film feel like real people with relatable shortcomings as opposed to stock sinner/saint characters. There are few moms who won’t sympathize with Allyson’s penchant for perfectionism or her fear that she’s failing on life’s major fronts. Likewise, as Sondra, Heaton helps us get in the head of a pastor’s wife who’s tired of feeling like a role model to hundreds of women yet a genuine friend to none.
This isn’t to suggest that every element in Moms’ Night Out works. The best scenes come during the first hour, and at a certain point the zaniness gets wearisome, pushing past the bounds of believability. But these are shortcomings common to the genre, and plenty of major studio movies like Tina Fey’s Date Night and the R-rated The Hangover suffered from the same malady. What Moms’ Night Out proves, even more than October Baby, is that the Erwins are Christian filmmakers who can compete with mainstream Hollywood in turning out a polished, engaging film. Moms’ Night Out isn’t funny for a Christian movie, it’s just funny.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss Moms’ Night Out on The World and Everything in It:
Though she’s long been known as one of the few out and proud Christians in Hollywood, Emmy Award–winning actress Patricia Heaton says she didn’t partner with filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin on Moms’ Night Out because they’re fellow believers. She did it because they had a good, funny story to tell.
“I think [Christians] do ourselves a big disservice when we focus on making ‘Christian movies’ because we automatically alienate a huge portion of our possible audience,” explains Heaton who both produced and co-stars in the film. “What we need to do is focus on really good, human stories, well-told.”
Heaton says she considers Moms’ Night Out a family comedy that happens to be about characters that go to the same church, and she hopes it proves that the subject matter for faith-based films can be much wider and more varied than audiences have seen so far.
“A lot of material that’s been faith-based has been very restrictive creatively because [the filmmakers] tiptoe around anything that might possibly offend,” she says. “I think there’s a few very vocal voices that won’t allow anything in a movie they consider offensive.” This, she argues, results in productions that “fail to reflect the realities of people’s lives.”
However, as the star of hit sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond and The Middle, Heaton says she’s learned firsthand that comedy offers a unique opportunity to circumvent the objections of those who prefer their Christian characters to be sinless. “The beauty of comedy is, because everything’s done with a sense of humor, you can explore things a little bit more and be more human and have characters who show their flaws and humanity and have it be funny and entertaining for everybody. I think that’s what Moms’ Night Out has done. For the first time it portrays Christians as real people with flaws and failings and also a sense of humor.”
Heaton says that as she and her husband, David Hunt, have branched out into producing movies and television shows, they’ve avoided looking for explicit messages of any sort and instead focus on finding good material, trusting that their faith will shine naturally through their work. “Because every movie is a faith-based movie,” says Heaton, “it just depends on what the filmmakers are putting their faith in.” —M.B.