by Ken Bakely
Some of the most entertaining scenes in Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad are, strangely enough, not the ones in which a rogue television signal has sent every parent that encounters it into a filicidal rage, offing their offspring with a wide variety of household objects. Instead, the film is at its best at the peripheries of its high concept, focusing on a suburban family caught in these horrors. Parents Nick and Kendall (Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair) deal with their own marital strife, alongside having to raise their self-centered teenage daughter, Carly (Anne Winters), and hyperactive young son, Josh (Zackary Arthur). There’s a hilariously hostile argument between Kendall and Carly before the chaos begins. And Taylor lets Cage do his thing in a particularly overblown flashback where Nick’s midlife crisis leads him to build an expensive man-cave, which he then destroys while scream-singing the hokey pokey.
Yet these moments are isolated from the movie’s conceit. Mom and Dad never builds upon its presumptions. Instead, it tries to placate its audience with sporadic violent bursts while struggling to press forward. An ambitious setpiece at Carly’s high school – in which a horde of possessed parents storm the gates, overpower confused faculty members, and begin slaughtering their children in the parking lot – is darkly hilarious. Taylor combines uneasiness from the very notion of the sequence with comedy by indulging the plain outrageousness of it. But when it comes to subsequent scenes depicting other bizarre rampages, its heights go unmatched. Even when the hypnosis comes home, and Kendall, Josh, Carly, and Carly’s boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham) must deal with a fully turned Nick, the movie can’t handle the transition from the conceptual to the individual.
This stems from the same reason that the simpler moments spent exploring its characters are more effective: the acting is stronger than the story, which is in turn stronger than the execution. Taylor’s jet-black comic impulses stop short of seeping into every corner of the plot, leaving the viewer to watch the aberrant behavior strum on with a dull rhythm. The stakes start out so high, and begin with such a front-loaded burst, that Mom and Dad would have to keep methodically layering its developments to keep things going. Instead, it runs in circles, playing with the semantics of the rules (grandparents want to kill their children, but when alone with their grandchildren, act just as doting as ever) but not considering the shifting reactions of its characters, much less their environment.
It’s symbolic of a particular messiness which ironically serves to mute the anarchy of the film’s world. Mom and Dad rushes through its runtime with scattershot focus. We’re left expecting more. It plays like the unseen backstory behind an absurdist post-apocalyptic miniseries, in which a paradox runs between a desire to build a new world and regrow the population, while knowing each attempt would fail. There’s Sisyphean comedy there, similar to the endless loop that Taylor infers during the most enjoyable moments of the first and second acts. But that never clicks for the finale, and thus can’t form a bridge to anywhere, even if it wanted to. There’s something strangely unnerving about how a movie could take Nicolas Cage, thrust him into his comfortable space of relentless physicality and operatic verbalizing, and have it fall into its own separate locale, occurring for his scenes and his scenes alone, somehow stopping without ever making us believe that they could elevate anything else.
How can this be possible? Consider that Mom and Dad violates the storytelling rule of “Yes, and…?”, the truism which holds that each idea must be followed by another idea that specifically builds upon the very last thing that happened. It’s a guiding principle of improv, and an unspoken component of any kind of narrative. Here, the plot’s social subversions wear thin when there’s nothing to augment them. It should be the point at which things branch out – to a wider scope, to hint at what comes after the disaster has subsided, or to even imply that it never will. However, the movie falls into a rut of equal-level setpieces, each meeting diminishing returns. When things take an unexpected turn in the last few minutes, we’re game for a fresh spin on the proceedings, but the script jams itself into a tiny space. The ostensibly final joke – which bases itself on Taylor’s juxtapositional style by taking a common idiom and giving it a very literal spin – is cut off by another move, which unfortunately involves ending the film in the middle of that last sentence.