The Mother Is Fun in Spite of Itself

Not since Stella Dallas has a mother made so many selfless sacrifices for her daughter. Not since Taken has a protective parent fended off so many rotten baddies. Mush those two genres together—the classic women’s picture and the pulpy, rage-driven action adventure—and you get The Mother, in which Jennifer Lopez plays the mother to end all mothers, a mysterious assassin who slinks out of retirement to protect the daughter (Lucy Paez) she was forced to give up a dozen years ago.

It all begins with an interrogation. Lopez’s the Mother—her character, a womb with balls, has no name—slouches elegantly in some messy safe house somewhere, staring down a couple of no-nonsense FBI interrogators. She glowers from the cocoon of her artfully ragged cashmere hoodie as they pepper her with questions. Where are the two dangerous arms dealers she’s been tangling with? Was she really romantically involved with both of them? At the same time, even? Before the tough-guy feds can get answers, possible baby daddy number one (Joseph Fiennes) crashes their pad and attempts to blow them to smithereens. One of the agents (Omari Hardwick) nearly succumbs to his wounds, until the Mother, thinking quickly as mothers do, mends the gaping hole in his side by squirting some household glue in there. Then she retreats to the bathroom to fashion a Molotov cocktail from a bottle of tea tree shampoo, crouching in the shower as she awaits the man she knows is coming for her. By this point we see that she’s tremendously pregnant, and she’ll protect this baby at all costs. Woe betide Adrian, who dares jab at her stomach with a knife. Her tea-tree bomb burns him to a crisp. Or does it?

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The Mother would, of course, like to keep this baby, but the FBI whisks the infant away shortly after she’s born. There’s nothing left for the newly bereft Mother to do but retreat to Alaska, where a former colleague (Paul Raci) offers her shelter in a shabby-chic decrepit cabin. There, she lives a quiet and solitary life, blamming deer and other wildlife for sustenance. Years pass, with nary a delivery from FreshDirect. Then she gets word that her daughter, Zoe, now 12, may be in danger. The trek to save her offspring takes the Mother from Alaska to Cincinnati to Cuba, where she encounters possible baby daddy number two (Gael García Bernal), who now appears to be both sinister and crazy: he’s sequestered himself in a temple of religious candles and guns. The Mother is having none of it—isn’t it time he got a real job?—and Hector, too, meets a bad end.

Snowmobile chases, knife fights, J.Lo kicking the asses of anyone who threatens her tiny nuclear family: If that sounds like fun, it is, but almost in spite of itself. Director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, Mulan) approaches the material reverently, as a parable about the strength of women. In one of the movie’s most compelling scenes, the Mother lectures Zoe, a sullen preteen who has no idea how good she has it, on the damage tofu has wrought upon the world. This is some pretty tough love.

The Mother Is Fun in Spite of Itself

But how can we not laugh—with joy, not derision—when we see our favorite mom hunting stag in Alaska while wearing the lushest fur-trimmed hood this side of Fendi? Lopez is a marvelous actor, appealing in ways that go beyond any analysis of technique. As the shamelessly out-for-herself dancer Ramona in the 2019 Hustlers, she revealed layers of vulnerability beneath her character’s hard-shell veneer, and she brings her A-game champagne-bubble charm offensive even to low-stakes, low-key comedies like Marry Me. The Mother would be more effective if she could wink at the audacity of the material instead of just playing it all straight. But then, Lopez can get away with things that other mere mortals can’t, and if you approach it in the right spirit, The Mother could be ridiculously good fun. It needs to be watched with the largest group of J.Lo fans you can assemble, ideally people who know artfully applied highlighter when they see it in the wild. Forget automatic weapons; it’s the Beauty Blender that gets the job done.

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