Anybody been missing Erma Bombeck lately? Maybe I should be asking if anyone remembers Erma Bombeck at all. For you extra-youngs, the brilliant Bombeck was a suburban satirist who wrote best-selling book after best-selling book of essays about the everyday disasters involved in being an old-school housewife (what we now refer to as the stay-at-home mom, “housewife” having fallen from cultural favor, even among not-feminists). Bombeck was also sharp as a prison toothbrush-shiv when it came to critiquing the very existence of husbands and children. Her persona was exhausted and sarcastic, but the subtext was always love. If you ever decide to read her you’ll realize you love her right back.
There’s an occasional flash of Bombeckian wit in Moms’ Night Out, and it comes from the mouth of a child-hating, male babysitter character who, when busted by police and mistaken for a kidnapper, announces, “Guess what kids? We’re all going to jail.”
That momentary dip into near-darkness is an odd touch for a Christian-themed comedy, but it’s a welcome one. Here’s why: the faith-based film movement, growing in box-office strength and in sheer amount of product, has routinely played it safe by preaching directly to the audience it can scare up via group ticket sales in churches, sort of like Christian rock in the 1980s. But Mom’s Night Out is something of a missionary tool. It has connections to inferior, self-serious films like Courageous and Fireproof, as well as to 2014’s hottest cruelty jam, God’s Not Dead, yet it marks a step forward in production values, direction, acting and overall welcoming tone. Formally, it refuses to rise above the level of a competently executed TV movie, but that’s still a big improvement for the genre.
The story is The Hangover meets Adventures In Babysitting meets Southern Baptist vacation Bible school. Harried, stressed, writer's-blocked-mommy-blogger Allyson (Sarah Drew) needs a night out with her female friends. She just wants to dress up nicely, eat in a restaurant with adults and have a few hours of time for herself. Joining her are friend Izzy (Andrea Logan White) and pastor’s wife Sondra (Patricia Heaton). The men are left at home to play violent video games and take the kids to a Chuck E. Cheese-style germ factory. Complications arrive in the form of missing children, a wisdom-delivering biker (Trace Adkins), tattoo parlors, police (with donuts!), injury, stress meltdowns and the aforementioned jail. The message: ladies, it’s easier for everyone when you just stay home.
But back to the Bombeck; Moms’ Night Out strikes an admirable balance between playing by its own rules – characters talk a lot about the Bible and Jesus, so if that bugs you then you can just stay home yourself – and by engaging with the outside world. It’s mostly silly and usually trite, but when it comes to depicting steadfast Christian female characters as plagued by the same existential misery as everybody else, it’s like a glimpse into the soul of doubt. It’s this movie’s version of keeping it real.