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Mother knows worst – ‘Otherhood’

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Sometimes, you know exactly what you’re going to get from a movie within the first few minutes. Occasionally, that’s a good thing. More often, it’s definitely not.

The new movie “Otherhood” – directed by Cindy Chupak from a script she co-wrote with Mark Andrus, based on the William Sutcliffe novel “Whatever Makes You Happy” – is very much an example of the latter. Despite a talented cast, the film quickly bogs down in clichés and spins its wheels, asking the viewer to bear with it even as it staggers toward an uninspired finish.

It’s another example of the algorithmically-curated content creation model of Netflix; the streaming service recognizes an audience for a type of movie – in this case, a story featuring women of a certain age dealing with their families – and proceeds to make it. Alas, actual quality doesn’t always factor into the decision.

Carol (Angela Bassett, TV’s “911”), Gillian (Patricia Arquette, “Toy Story 4”) and Helen (Felicity Huffman, “Krystal”) are three women living in Poughkeepsie. They’ve been friends for years, brought together by the connections between their children. But their kids have left the nest, with all three moving to the city. Carol’s son Matt (Sinqua Walls, TV’s “The Breaks”) is an art director for a men’s magazine. Gillian’s son Daniel (Jake Hoffman, “Goldbricks in Bloom”) is a struggling novelist who just broke up with his longtime girlfriend Erin (Heidi Gardner, “Life of the Party”). And Helen’s son Paul (Jake Lacy, TV’s “Fosse/Verdon”) is a window display designer who never quite got around to coming out to his mom.

The three women have a now-annual tradition – they get together at Carol’s house on Mother’s Day and bemoan the fact that their sons no longer seem to have much time for them. But this year, they decide to do something about it. They pile into Gillian’s Volvo and drive into the city with the intent of making their sons pay attention to them.

This goes about as well as you might expect.

Each woman tries to reintegrate herself into her son’s life. Carol lands in Matt’s apartment, cramping his style in a pretty significant way as she judges all of his personal and professional choices. Gillian pushes Daniel into blind dates and breaks into his apartment to cook and leave casseroles. And Helen meets Paul’s boyfriend Andre (Frank De Julio, “Never Here”) and is forced to confront the reasons behind Paul’s disinterest in coming out to her.

Not only does this mission wind up causing more strife with their respective sons, it also brings some past ugliness to the surface, drastically effecting the relationships they have with one another. Their efforts to regain some closeness with their kids only serve to drive them away, with the added bonus of fracturing their own bonds.

As Carol seeks to push her son to do more with his talents, as Gillian tries to help Daniel reconcile with Erin, as Helen looks to come to terms with not just her son’s relationship, but her own … none of it goes according to plan. And as it turns out, every relationship has its limits.

Obviously, I recognize that I am not the target audience for “Otherhood.” This movie was not made for me. But even taking that into account, this is not a very good movie. Not a terrible movie, mind you, but still – not good. There’s a basic-cable feel to the whole thing that is a bit off-putting; one thing Netflix has generally been fairly good at is solid production value, but this movie felt a bit low-rent in terms of quality.

It’s too bad, because it really does have a talented cast. Bassett, Arquette and Huffman are all exceptional performers, but “Otherhood” never takes advantage of their talents. Instead, all three are shunted into single-note caricatures – one is overbearing, another is contemptuous, the other is needy – and never given the opportunity to showcase their abilities. Frankly, it’s a waste – and a disappointing one at that.

The supporting cast isn’t done any favors either. As the sons, Walls, Hoffman and Lacy are in the same boat as the women playing their mothers – they’re all defined by basic characteristics, with no hint at actual depth. It’s more of the same with Gardner and De Julio and the rest of the ensemble – there’s nothing there.

That lack of characterization effectively undermines any potential emotional impact the film might have. The formulaic nature of the narrative is made painfully apparent by the absence of engaging characters. The reality is that you simply don’t care about any of these people – they’re all kind of awful, really – and without empathetic engagement … what’s the point?

That’s what it all boils down to with “Otherhood.” You’ll sit down and watch for 100 minutes and the credits will roll and you’ll be left with that one question: what’s the point?

And as it turns out, there isn’t one.

[1 out of 5]

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