Selma Blair and Nicolas Cage in 'Mom & Dad' (Photo: Toronto Film Festival)
“We love you but sometimes we just want to kill you” is a thought that crosses nearly every frazzled parents’ mind sooner or later. That figurative sentiment is taken all too literally in Mom & Dad, which finds the gonzo sensibility that writer-director Brian Taylor applied most usefully to the Crank action movies working at least as well in comedic horror. Though sure to be distasteful for some viewers even to ponder, this giddy exercise transcends mere bad-taste humor to become one of the great jet-black comedies about suburbia, destined for the same cult-classic status accorded The Stepford Wives, Parents, and Heathers.
After a particularly good example of the 1970s genre pic homage that has infiltrated so many movies’ opening credits of late, we settle into discordant ordinary life on a seemingly ordinary day on a generic middle-class cul-de-sac in Whateversburg, USA (the movie was shot in Kentucky). Our protagonists are likewise very ordinary, if dysfunctional: Cellphone-glued teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters) rendezvous with her forbidden (black!) boyfriend, Damon (Robert Cunningham); little bro Joshua (Zackary Arthur) is a bratty little terror who’s about 10. Brent (Nicolas Cage) can still pull it together to be the “fun dad,” but simmering just beneath that is a volcano of midlife-crisis resentment. All this wears heavily on mom Kendall (Selma Blair), who sacrificed her career and any other outside life for a family that no longer seems to appreciate her.
As they go their separate ways for yet another day of work, school, aerobics class, etc., it gradually emerges that something inexplicable has occurred. (There are vague hints that some kind of neurological virus transmitted by TV and computer screens has brought “mass hysteria.”) It’s only when a full-on bloodbath erupts on the high school football field that the audience, the characters, and then the mass media begin to grasp what’s going on: For whatever reason, parents have suddenly developed a compulsive urge to kill their children.
Realizing Joshua may be in mortal danger, Carly makes her way home through the now carnage-strewn suburban landscape — while, unfortunately, a newly energized Mom & Dad are also heading there, with a vengeance. The resulting standoff soon sees the kids lock themselves in the basement, with their parents using every unscrupulous means to get at them. Just when you think the situation is tapped-out, Taylor throws in a monkey-wrench with the arrival of Brent’s parents (Lance Henriksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank), who were expected for dinner but bring something else to the party.
Couching its social critiques — of shallow materialism, casual racism, and other privileged woes — in breakneck action and merciless splatstick, Mom & Dad is a gas. Taylor and his terrific tech/design collaborators avoid wearing out the joke with just enough spry variation in tone and pace, alleviating the frequently frenetic content with stretches of ironic lyricism and even poignancy. (Credit for that should be fully shared with d.p. Daniel Pearl, editors Rose Corr and Fernando Villena, composer Mr. Bill, and music supervisor Ryan Gaines, all of whom knock it out of the park.)
The juvenile actors play it straight, with skill; the adults get the more interesting task of conveying various balances of cartoon and genuine menace. An unlikely star from the start, whose shaky choices of late have imperiled that status, Cage has always been at his best in precisely this zone of maniacal comic invention. That you see him doing variations here on what he’s done before doesn’t lessen the performance’s unpredictable, inspired hilarity.
Blair, on the other hand, feels somehow underappreciated even if she’s hardly been underemployed. She covers a gamut from bittersweet sympathy to farce to monstrousness, running amok like a cat on piano keys, yet hitting each note perfectly. Mom & Dad isn’t the kind of movie they give acting awards to — but in a just world, it would be.
Nicolas Cage showed up at a Nicolas Cage movie marathon and read a short story:
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