A movie can be unreasonably formulaic and still be reasonably diverting, and “A Bad Moms Christmas” is the proof. Some sequels take time to come together. This one took a mere 15 months to reunite Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and the extraordinarily valuable Kathryn Hahn as the suburban Chicago pals perennially under the gun of peer pressure and familial expectation. (The movie was shot in Atlanta, with some fake-looking snow-machine snow in tidy little piles here and there.) Screenwriters and directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore return and, while their staging, and setups and what the old folks call “moviemaking” remain functional at best, a fair number of the jokes hit their targets.
Gone is the tedious narrative machinery of the first “Bad Moms” that involved the Kunis character’s brutal rivalry with her fiercest PTA enemy, played by Christina Applegate. In its place, Lucas and Moore steal their own opening from “The Hangover,” with a stunned Amy (Kunis) sitting amid the wreckage of a rough Christmas Eve, complete with roving camel and broken glass.
Flashback: We go back a few days to meet our heroines’ unexpected-drop-in mothers, played by Susan Sarandon, Cheryl Hines and Christine Baranski. Hines portrays the Klingon who can’t let go, to the point of not leaving the bedroom where her daughter (Bell) is having sex with her husband. Baranski’s controlling, imperious, demanding character is the reason why, we’re told, narrator Amy finds Christmas so hard on the ego and the spirit. “You have to do (everything) perfectly or you’ll never forgive yourself,” Amy says.
While the Baranski character bigfoots her daughter’s attempts at ramping down and mellowing out the holiday, Sarandon’s hard-living ex-roadie hits town to ask daughter Carla (Hahn) for money. “A Bad Moms Christmas” rotates through exercises in confrontation, evasion, bonding, letting off steam and building the steam back up again for the next round.
The sequel accommodates some genial beefcake in the form of Justin Hartley’s firefighter/male stripper, the love interest for Carla. They meet over a testicle waxing (she works in a spa) and, against all odds, the scene starts funny and stays funny. Baranski, who has played these sorts of women before, brings rapier comic timing to scenes such as a Christmas Eve chapel quasi-apology to Kunis, where she can’t quite say the words “I’m sorry.” It’s Hahn, though, who kills throughout. Even when the movie confines the audience to the inside of a mall for a distressing length of time, she energizes the formula.
Comedy is so damn hard. In order for performers to fly, the material — which is both the trapeze and the net — must be in place, supporting the riffs. Nobody goes to a movie like “A Bad Moms Christmas” for fresh plotting; they just want a few dirty laughs, a little heart and a pretense, anyway, of relatability (though Kunis, who glides through unruffled even when her character’s supposed to be frazzled, isn’t everyone’s idea of relatable). Moviemakers take so few chances with sequels because there’s no money in it; risking overfamiliarity is a better bet than disorienting the pre-sold customer. On the other hand, 2017 has been laden with sequels of varying quality performing below expectations. This one’s not bad.
These days, that means more than it should.
Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune’s film critic.
"A Bad Moms Christmas" — 2.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some drug use)
Running time: 1:44