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A Dog Whistle for Christians

A Dog Whistle for Christians Provident Films Saeed Adyani

AP/Provident Films/Saeed Adyani

John Zmirak - published on 05/21/14

The harmless comedy “Moms’ Night Out” has anti-Christians pulling out their shivs.

A really offensive, racist expression I heard once and never thought about again has just recurred to my memory: There’s a slur in Italian, “come un Christiano,” which means “almost human.”  It’s used by the ignorant to describe non-white people wearing suits and working at office jobs.  What made me think of this nasty, peasant cliché?  The reaction of liberal critics to “Moms’ Night Out.”  These critics are reacting to the fact that Christian filmmakers have produced a successful mainstream movie as if they were watching a dog try to walk on its hind legs.

In a scathing writeup of the movie, The Dissolve’s Nathan Rabin scoffed at Christian cinema for its “explicit references to Jesus that serve as dog whistles to the faithful.”  Because believers are dopey, if sometimes loveable canines who respond mindlessly to simple stimuli, which are inaudible to more evolved creatures like critics.

Christy Lemire of started her review by calling the movie “[d]epressingly regressive and borderline dangerous.”  Is she afraid that the Christians might hear the wrong whistle and bite people?  Not quite:  She objects to the film’s sinister embrace of stay-at-home motherhood as an acceptable way of life, and pretends that the chaos the moms encounter when they go out on the town is not being played for laughs.  No, it’s a subliminal warning to keep women from going out on the town.  Stay inside—it’s dangerous out there!

Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times objects to the fact that Christian filmmakers are trying to present their characters as normal, modern people: “The film, directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin (who are brothers), is way too eager to emphasize that Christians do all the with-it things. They blog! They text! They drive recklessly!”  Isn’t it kind of poignant when the Christians try to act all… human?  Like a dog walking on its hind legs….

Rafer Guzman of Newsday lets loose with a stream of abuse that I have rarely seen directed at a movie—even films that were really were terrible, witless, and offensive.  He calls “Moms’ Night Out” “unskilled, unimaginative and unintentionally grotesque,” “wretched,” and “a kind of negative miracle.” Guzman does little more than rant, barely pausing to explain what he thinks is wrong with this harmless movie.  Maybe if the film contained the “edgy” elements that increasingly populate mainstream comedies, such as sadism, graphic sex, and drug use by children, Guzman would cut it a little slack.  But a PG movie which depicts Evangelical Christians acting goofy… that seems to cross Guzman’s line.

“Moms’ Night Out” is charming, frantic, silly, and worth taking time to see.  It depicts a night in the lives of three stay-at-home moms who attend the same Protestant church, who are seeking an evening of glamour in the absence of their somewhat clueless husbands and needy kids.  In the tradition of movies like the (funny but raunchy) “Bridesmaids” and “Date Night,” things don’t go that smoothly—and the quest for leisurely elegance quickly spirals into a catastrophe.  It isn’t a perfect movie; one of the moms is neurotic and shrill, one of the dads seems too dumb to live, and (worst of all) the film explicitly endorses the practice of “mommy-blogging.”  But there are important things to be said in its favor:

a) It really is funny.

b) It manages that without ever being filthy—so whole families really can go to see it without their kids being embarrassed by what their parents might think.

c) Unlike the recent Jason Bateman vehicle, “Bad Words,” “Moms’ Night Out” does not rely for laughs on the emotional torture of children, or
flirt with pedophilia.

d) Unlike “Anchorman 2,” it doesn’t descend from “stupid” to “brain-damaged” in the third act, and send you out of the theater ashamed of yourself, muttering “They thought I would laugh at that?”

e) Unlike “
Noah,” “Moms’ Night Out” is funny on purpose.

f) The characters in “Moms’ Night Out” talk about God once or twice—which is the kind of thing that millions of Americans actually do, on a regular basis, though it’s not depicted in movies.  I know that Americans also urinate.  For some reason, the latter gets a lot more play on screen in recent decades than the former.

It is rare to see religious behavior depicted on screen, as if it were some unseemly, private necessity that directors are squeamish about.  But the makers of “Moms’ Night Out” are bold enough to depict it.  And the role faith plays in the film is an organic one: The moms know each other from church, and one of them is married to the preacher.  The preacher’s wife feels pressure to be “perfect,” and her daughter thinks her dad will scare off potential boyfriends.  The heroine projects her own neurotic, perfectionist guilt onto God—and only learns to let go and embrace the glorious crappiness of life in a fallen world after two hours of watching her “night out” turn into a slow-motion train wreck.  The only real “lesson” the movie delivers comes from the mouth of a lapsed-Christian outlaw biker—and it centers not on sin, but forgiveness.

And that’s what certain critics can’t forgive.  Christian filmmakers have gone out and made the kind of movie that millions of people want to see—a goofy, escapist comedy.  They have done a good job, and have offered a film that people can kick back and enjoy, without having to wince through cringeworthy sexual acts, or incest jokes, or scenes of people in their thirties using drugs like addled teenagers.  The filmmakers accomplished this, incorporated religion, and managed by even the hostile critics’ account to do so without being preachy.  And so they constitute a threat to the studios which insist that no comedy can be made that doesn’t appeal primarily to a) six-year-old girls who love unicorns or b) thirteen-year-old boys, and the millions of men who still act that age.  The film is professional, fun, and potentially appealing to millions of viewers.  And that’s why people are mad at “Moms’ Night Out.”  The filmmakers are acting “almost like Christians.”

John Zmirak
is co-author of the upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014). His columns are archived here.

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