Nicolas Cage sings a deranged rendition of “The Hokey Pokey” while smashing a homemade pool table to smithereens with a sledgehammer in Mom and Dad, and even for a performer whose big-screen persona has been partially defined by out-there insanity, it’s an instantly classic moment of unhinged mania in the Oscar-winner’s career. Better still, it’s emblematic of the film as a whole, as this gonzo comedy begins with an act of infanticide-via-speeding train, and only gets wilder from there.
Such madness is to be expected from not only Cage—a star who revels in the over-the-top potential of every gesture, expression and quiet-to-LOUD line reading—but also Brian Taylor, who (along with frequent partner Mark Neveldine) previously directed the two action-on-speed Crank films and the Cage-headlined Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. Cage and Taylor are a match made in gonzo cinema heaven, and Mom and Dad (in theaters January 19) is a fitting vehicle for their artistic impulses, which skew toward black-and-blue humor and violence, and seem to be fueled by a concoction of bad mescaline and schizophrenic nightmares. They’re kindred crazies, amused by murderous absurdity and aroused by go-for-broke delirium.
Rest assured, those qualities are on full display in their latest collaboration, which concerns a sudden, uncontrollable desire on the part of parents, worldwide, to murder…their children.
That wave of filicide begins with a mother leaving her infant child in a car parked astride train tracks as a speeding locomotive approaches, and soon spreads across the nearby cookie-cutter suburb where Brent (Cage) and wife Kendall (Selma Blair) reside with their teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters) and adolescent son Josh (Zackary Arthur). At breakfast in a kitchen also populated by their Chinese housekeeper Sun-Yi (Sharon Gee) and her daughter Lisa (Adin Alexa Steckler), the clan’s bickering is intense, with everyone expressing disgust with each other: Carly with Brent’s suggestion that he was once a virile horndog; Kendall with Brent’s jokes about the aforementioned baby murder; and Brent with Carly’s comment that she’s on “the rag.” It’s a tense household, and considering that Taylor prefaces this scene with a credit sequence full of scuzzy ‘70s-era color-coded split screens, it’s clear that we’re in exploitation terrain, where things are about to explode.
That detonation doesn’t come immediately, as the filmmaker first lays out the many ways in which Carly is an unbearable teen—including her smart mouth, her indignant eye-rolls, and her phone addiction, the last of which is visualized via images of her texts and social-media screens appearing on top of Kendall as the mother and daughter chat in the car. Josh is only somewhat more tolerable, a layabout who leaves his toys everywhere and whose idea of fun is to store a dead animal in Brent’s beloved Firebird Trans Am. It’s thus no surprise that, upon exiting the front door and gazing upon his bland planned community, Brent is struck by a memory of happier glory-days-gone-by, when he tore about in his sports car with a topless woman on his lap while heavy metal blared from the speakers—a reverie of euphoric badass-paradise lost.
After Carly’s friend Riley (Olivia Crocicchia) is spied at school listening to profane hip-hop and buying drugs in the bathroom—leading her teacher (Joseph D. Reitman) to opine, “You kids need to go to church”—things go really haywire, with police cars racing up to the front doors and parents congregating outside a gate, trying to fetch their kids. When one boy complies, leaping over a fence despite the best efforts of police to stop him, he’s promptly stabbed to death with car keys, thereby initiating a mad pursuit across a football field by parents (resembling feverish zombies intent on slaughter) after their sons and daughters. The reasons for this mayhem aren’t initially clear. Yet TV broadcasts that suddenly segue to white snow, as well as the soundtrack’s electronic buzzing and bleeping, suggest—as do panicked news anchors—that adults have somehow been psychologically corrupted by a bioweapon (or, per Dr. Oz, is it just humanity’s answer to pig-savaging?) Think Halloween: Season of the Witch, except with the signal targeting fathers’ and mothers’ parental cortex.
Mom and Dad has no interest in proffering a literal answer to its central mystery; instead, it treats its premise as a means of corrosive satire, in which the traditional roles expected of—and played by—men and women are exposed as fatally unfulfilling. For Brent and Kendall, choosing lives of diminishing-returns domesticity—he as the breadwinner who’s constantly earning less bread; she as the career-sacrificing homemaker—has wrought little more than regret, unhappiness and rage. Their homicidal urges, as well as those of other parents, are presented as a manifestation of their misery at having negated their own sense of selves for an unrewarding existence spent caring for narcissistic brats with little common decency and no respect for their elders.
This situation invariably leads to a centerpiece in which Brent and Kendall attempt to off their offspring, and Taylor orchestrates it with glee, employing high- and low-angled shots to convey his adult characters’ psychosis, bifurcated compositions that highlight the familial schisms at work, and hyperactive edits and computerized noises to create an atmosphere of volatile dissonance. Far from off-putting, there’s a giddiness to this aesthetic assault, which comes replete with droll musical choices like Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love” as Kendall’s sister, having just delivered her first child, tries to squeeze the life out of its still-attached-by-an-umbilical-cord body—at which point Taylor segues to a shot of fathers staring furiously at their newborns from the other side of a hospital nursery’s window, their malevolent thoughts legible on their silent faces.
Blair dives into this material with gusto, initially pitching her performance a few notches below hysterical and then dialing up the sinister volume until, finally, she transforms into a 21st century Mommie Dearest. It’s Cage, however, that truly kicks Mom and Dad into outrageous overdrive. Vacillating on a dime between tranquil cheeriness and screaming/weeping fury, and verbally raging in his usual oddly-syncopated manner (“I was gonna grab the world by the balls, and squeeze—boy!”), Cage is a whirlwind of paternal wrath. His Brent is the embodiment of head-of-household bitterness run amok—as well as a case study in why kids must eventually escape their mothers and fathers’ grasp—and one who eventually finds himself trapped in a cycle of extinction-level annihilation once his own pa and ma (Lance Henriksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank) decide to visit. It’s a turn that’s bug-eyed cartoonish and unpredictably menacing, and to see Cage stalking his progeny with a Sawzall electric saw while crowing “Saws All!”—stretching out the vowel sounds to the point of lunacy—is to witness the actor in all his peerlessly eccentric glory.