Review: ‘Friendsgiving,’ starring Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Aisha Tyler, Jack Donnelly, Jane Seymour, Chelsea Peretti and Ryan Hansen

October 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Deon Cole, Aisha Tyler, Andrew Santino, Christine Taylor, Kat Dennings, Jack Donnelly, Malin Akerman, Jane Seymour, Ryan Hansen, Mike Rose, Scout Durwood and Rhea Butcher in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Friendsgiving”

Directed by Nicol Paone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Friendsgiving” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, one Latino and one Asian) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Hollywood actress and her best friend, who are trying to get over big breakups in their respective love lives, plan to spend a quiet Thanksgiving together, but those plans are disrupted by several unexpected guests.  

Culture Audience: “Friendsgiving” will appeal primarily to people who like lowbrow comedies that think any jokes about sex, drugs and selfish antics are automatically supposed to be funny.

Pictured clockwise from bottom left: Serenity Reign Brown, Kat Dennings, Christine Taylor, Aisha Tyler, Deon Cole, Everly or Savannah Sucher, Malin Akerman and Jack Donnelly in “Friendsgiving” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

When there’s a comedy film about a large, chaotic holiday gathering, how much you might enjoy the film really comes down to one thing: Would you want to spend time with any of these people in real life? “Friendsgiving” swings hard and aims low in this vulgar comedy about mostly self-absorbed people at a Thanksgiving dinner, where the majority of the people weren’t even invited by the host. There are some mildly amusing moments, but “Friendsgiving” is really just a series of crude jokes, as the movie’s characters preen, make mischief, and whine about something that eludes almost everyone in this movie: a happy, long-term, monogamous relationship.

“Friendsgiving” is the feature-film debut of Nicol Paone, who has a background in stand-up comedy and as a writer for Funny or Die. Unfortunately, this movie is written as if everyone is a caricature waiting to spout some foul-mouthed lines that someone would write for a mediocre stand-up comedy act. The good news is that the characters’ personalities are distinctive and you can tell them apart from each other. The bad news is that their personalities are also very shallow.

Set in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day, the two central characters of “Friendsgiving” are longtime best friends Abby Barrone (played by Kat Dennings) and Molly (played by Malin Akerman), who have had very different reactions to painful breakups in their love life. Abby is still recovering from being dumped in January by her ex-girlfriend Maeve, who is a single mother. Molly is a semi-famous Hollywood actress who’s raising a baby son named Eden (played by twins Everly and Savannah Sucher) on her own. Molly’s businessman husband Michael left her because he said he didn’t want to be married to her anymore.

Molly’s impending divorce hasn’t reached the stage of signing divorce papers yet, but she considers herself to be single and available. And she’s already found a new lover: a Brit who’s a cheerful, New Age type of philanthropist named Jeff (played by Jack Donnelly, who’s married to Akerman in real life), whom she’s been dating for only about two weeks. They met when Molly was in London for a press tour for a movie called “Pluto Raiders,” which is described as a basic sci-fi action flick.

Meanwhile, Abby is still wallowing in her breakup misery and has a hard time getting back into the dating pool. Abby doesn’t label her sexuality in the movie, but she mentions that Maeve was the first woman she ever dated, after Abby previously dated only men. In one of several video chats that Abby has with her nosy and opinionated family members—including Abby’s mother (Rose Abdoo) and Abby’s younger sister Barbara (played by Dana DeLorenzo)—Abby is given unsolicited advice on her love life. She is “out of the closet” with her family members, who are a traditional Italian clan on the East Coast, and they seem to think it’s best if Abby settles down and marries a man.

According to the production notes for “Friendsgiving,” the movie is loosely based on Paone’s real-life experiences during one Thanksgiving, when she was mourning a breakup from an ex-girlfriend, while Paone’s best friend was raising a baby after her husband had left her. This shared loneliness and breakup blues sparked the idea for the movie. Paone is openly gay, and she describes Abby as a “gay lady” in the movie.

Although the heart of the movie is about the friendship between Molly and Abby, the story is more focused on Molly. It’s at Molly’s home where the Thanksgiving dinner is held, and Molly is the one whom people seem to want to be around, probably because she’s a fairly successful actress. She lives in a spacious house, but it’s clear that she’s not an A-list actress who can afford any live-in staff.  (There’s no nanny in sight.)

The opening scene of “Friendsgiving” gets right to the raunchiness, as Molly is dressed as a dominatrix while she and Jeff are engaged in some light BDSM play. Their sex session is interrupted by a phone call from Molly’s friend Lauren (played by Aisha Tyler), who asks Molly if she, her husband and two kids can come over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving. Lauren gives a vague explanation that she’s going a little stir-crazy in the home and wants to spend Thanksgiving at Molly’s place, and she offers to bring some food. Molly is too polite to say no.

Meanwhile, Abby is chatting by phone with her mother and sister while doing some last-minute Thanksgiving shopping in a grocery store. There are clues to how obnoxious Abby can be, such as when she guzzles a bottle of wine while shopping. When a store manager tells her that drinking alcohol in an open container is not allowed in the store, Abby refuses his request to stop, and she gets thrown out by security. Before Abby leaves the store, she makes sure to do some damage to the Christmas tree on display.

Abby plans to spend a quiet Thanksgiving with just Molly and Eden. But there would be no “Friendsgiving” movie if that happened. Needless to say, Abby isn’t too pleased when she hears that there will be more people at the Thanksgiving dinner than originally planned. In fact, Abby is furious, and she starts whining about it like a bratty teenager.

Jeff is invited to stay for Thanksgiving dinner too, since Molly figures out that he’s lonely and has nowhere else to go. And of course, since this is a movie that wants to cram in as many jokes as possible about sex and penis sizes, the first time that Jeff and Abby meet, he accidentally walks into the room completely naked. As an embarrassed Jeff covers his genital area, Abby quips, “It’s no big deal. I have one just like it in my top drawer, except mine is bigger.”

It turns out that Lauren invited several people over to Molly’s place for Thanksgiving without checking with Molly first. And then, Molly’s sex-crazed Swedish mother Helen (played by Jane Seymour), who’s on her fifth marriage, shows up unannounced without her current husband. And, much to Molly’s embarrassment, Helen acts exactly how you would think a no-filter “cougar” would act.

In addition to Molly, Abby and Helen, the people who are at this larger-than-expected Thanksgiving dinner include:

  • Jeff, Molly’s new lover whom Abby begins to compete with in the kitchen and for Molly’s attention.
  • Lauren, who brings some low-dosage psychedelic mushrooms to share with Abby and Molly. (Molly declines to take any mushrooms, but Lauren and Abby do.)
  • Dan (played by Deon Cole), Lauren’s husband who is loving and attentive, but Lauren seems bored and restless in their marriage.
  • Lauren and Dan’s children Lily (played by Serenity Reign Brown), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and Jack (played by Kenneth Sims), who’s about 5 or 6 years old. The children have no purpose in the movie but to look cute, sit at the kiddie table, and possibly walk in on something “adult” happening.
  • Gunnar (played by Ryan Hansen), a vain actor who is an ex-boyfriend of Molly’s and whom she broke up with years ago because he cheated on her. Gunnar was invited to the Thanksgiving dinner by Molly’s mother Helen, who thinks Molly and Gunnar should get back together, but Helen didn’t know about Jeff when she invited Gunnar.
  • Gus (played by Mike Rose), who’s openly gay, single, and lets it be known that he has a brother who’s been missing for years, which has no bearing on this movie at all, but it’s an attempt to give Gus some kind of backstory.
  • Rick (played by Andrew Santino) and Brianne (played by Christine Taylor), an image-obsessed, materialistic newlywed couple from Orange County who met each other four months ago and have been married for one month. A running gag in the movie is Brianne has recently had some kind of plastic surgery on her mouth, which she can’t move properly.
  • Claire (played by Chelsea Peretti), a New Age hipster who’s recently become a shaman (or a “shawoman,” as she would prefer to be called) and who can’t stop spouting platitudes about people being in touch with their feelings. And maybe she’s a part-time drug dealer too, because Claire sold the mushrooms that Lauren brought to the party.

There are also three lesbians whom Lauren invited to the party in an attempt to match any of them up with Abby. The lesbians don’t have names in the movie, but they have nicknames in the end credits. The lesbians each give brief monologues to the camera explaining their likes and fetishes when it comes to dating.

The first lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed Denim (played by Rhea Butcher), and she likes to wear denim and gives off a Tig Notaro vibe. The second lesbian to arrive at the dinner is nicknamed named Palo (played by Scout Durwood), and she’s a neo-hippie who seem likes the type to go to the Burning Man Festival. The third lesbian is nicknamed Civil (played by Brianna Baker), and she’s a left-wing militant feminist.

In addition, comedians Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho and Fortune Feimster make cameo appearances as Fairy Gay Mothers, in a scene where Abby is having a psychedelic hallucination. The Fairy Gay Mothers give Abby some “Wizard of Oz”-inspired advice, since she is recently out of the closet as a queer woman: “All you have to do is tap your wing-tipped Oxfords three times and say, ‘There’s no place like Home Depot.'”

It’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie, which doesn’t have a lot of very funny scenes. By the way, Sykes is shown on the movie poster for “Friendsgiving.” But it’s misleading to think that she’s in the movie as one of the main stars. She’s barely in the film. Sykes, Cho, and Feimster are only in the Fairy Gay Mother scene, which lasts for only about five minutes. Unfortunately, the characters that are annoying in “Friendsgiving” get much more screen time than this hilarious trio.

Seymour, who’s British in real life, has a questionable Swedish accent for her character of Helen, who is one of the worst people in this group of mostly spoiled and obnoxious egomaniacs. When Molly makes it clear to Helen that she’s not interested in getting back together with Gunnar, Helen declares, “If you won’t have him, I will.” And then Helen proceeds to make a fool out of herself in trying to seduce Gunnar.

Molly is actually one of the more tolerable people in this group, but she shows a lot of bad judgment in quickly letting this group take over her household. Some of these guests thoughtfully brought potluck dishes, but others didn’t. And there’s a scene later in the movie that involves the baby and some irresponsible actions that send Molly and some other people into panic mode. It’s one thing for the adults in this story to act dumb, but it’s not that funny to make it a joke that an innocent child’s safety is put at risk because of some the shenanigans at this party.

Because there are so many guests at this dinner, “Friendsgiving” doesn’t spend a lot of time on character development. Therefore, everything in the movie is as superficial as the characters, which is why the movie has nothing to fall back on except more crude jokes and predictable gags. The overwhelming attitude that all the adults have at this Thanksgiving dinner is: “I’m going to do whatever makes me feel good, even if it hurts other people.”

And it’s why there’s an ill-conceived scene in the movie where Lauren and Abby make out with each other (this isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the movie’s trailer), and Lauren’s husband Dan finds out and naturally feels hurt by this infidelity. And it’s just so cringeworthy to see Helen try to be sexy with the ex-boyfriend of her daughter. It should come as no surprise later when Helen admits to Molly that her latest marriage is on the rocks, but it’s still no excuse for Helen’s selfish and predatory actions. Someone of Seymour’s talent deserves better than this tacky role, even if she doesn’t exactly master the Swedish accent that she’s supposed to have in the movie.

Dennings has a lot of very good comedic timing, but it’s too bad that a lot of lines she has to deliver make Abby insufferable. Akerman (who is one of the producers of “Friendsgiving”) is solid in her role as Molly, while the supporting actors do an adequate job with their very limited characters. Peretti can bring some chuckles as the spacey-yet-pretentious Claire, but those laughs are few and far in between, since Claire is a one-note character.

A better movie would’ve had less people at this Thanksgiving dinner. For example, the characters of Gus, Rick and Brianne don’t really add anything to the story except stereotypes that aren’t very funny. And speaking of stereotypes that aren’t very funny, here’s an example of some dialogue between the lesbian nicknamed Denim and the lesbian nicknamed Palo. Demin asks Palo, “Do you like basketball?” Palo replies, “I don’t like balls of any kind.” 

You get the idea. If “Friendsgiving” were a meal, then it would be a meal that should be skipped because of all the stale cheese that’s being offered.

Saban Films released “Friendsgiving” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 23, 2020. The movie’s release date on Blu-ray and DVD is October 27, 2020.

Review: ‘Call Your Mother,’ starring David Spade, Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Roy Wood Jr., Norm Macdonald, Kristen Schaal, Bridget Everett and Fortune Feimster

May 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Spade and his mother, Judy Todd, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Jenna Rosher/Comedy Central)

“Call Your Mother”

Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Culture Representation: The documentary “Call Your Mother” features a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) group of mostly American comedians talking about how their mothers have affected their lives, with some of the comedians’ mothers also participating in the documentary,.

Culture Clash: Some of the comedians describe having nonconformist or dysfunctional childhoods that are often used as material for their stand-up comedy acts.

Culture Audience: “Call Your Mother” will appeal primarily to people who want to learn more about the family backgrounds of some well-known comedians.

Louie Anderson with a picture of his mother, Ora Zella Anderson, in “Call Your Mother” (Photo by Alex Takats/Comedy Central)

If you ask any stand-up comedian who’s the family member most likely to inspire material for their stand-up comedy act, chances are the comedian will answer, “My mother.” With that in mind, the documentary “Call Your Mother” interviews a variety of comedians (and some of their mothers) to talk about how with these mother-child relationships have affected the comedians’ lives. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, “Call Your Mother” might not have a deep impact on society, but it accomplishes what it intends to do. The film is a mostly light-hearted, sometimes emotionally moving and occasionally raunchy ride that will give some psychological insight into how and why these comedians ended up where they are now.

“Call Your Mother” includes interviews with a notable list of comedians (almost all of them are American), including Louie Anderson, Awkwafina, Jimmy Carr, Bridget Everett, Fortune Feimster, Rachel Feinstein, Judah Friedlander, Jim Gaffigan, Judy Gold, Jen Kirkman, Jo Koy, Bobby Lee, the Lucas Brothers, Norm Macdonald, Jim Norton, Tig Notaro, Yvonne Orji, Kristen Schaal, David Spade and Roy Wood Jr.

In some cases, the mothers of these comedians are interviewed alongside their comedic children: Everett, Feimster, Schaal, Spade and Wood all have wisecracking moments with their mothers, who are also shown in the audiences while their children are on stage, as well as backstage or at home. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Macdonald is also interviewed with his mother.  (For whatever reason, no Latino comedians are in the documentary, which is a shame, because there are many Latino comedians who talk about their mothers in their stand-up acts.)

Bridget Everett’s mother, Freddie Everett, is memorable for being as foul-mouthed and crude as Bridget. (Freddie even gives the middle finger to the camera, but all in good fun.) Bridget Everett says, “My mother is really one of a kind. She’s the person you meet that you never forget. She can be kind of mean, but somehow she gets away with it.”

Bridget continues, “She’s got a real naughty streak in her,” when describing how her mother was the type to wear very revealing outfits in places where it would be inappropriate for a woman’s breasts to be openly displayed. “There’s something really liberating about that in a small, conservative town.”

Like many of the comedians interviewed in this documentary, Bridget Everett is a child of divorce. After her parents’ divorce, her mother Freddie (who raised six kids) would take a pre-teen Bridget with her to stalk her ex-husband, mainly to see if he was dating anyone new or other reasons to spy on his post-divorce love life.

Bridget remembers her mother telling her to look in windows and report what she saw to her mother. These experiences are part of Bridget Everett’s stand-up act.  And just like her mother used to do when she was young, Bridget Everett dresses in cleavage-baring outfits on stage. “My mom pulses through my performance,” she says. “It’s really a tribute to her.”

British comedian Carr says although his mother “was the funny person in the house,” she often suffered from depression. He turned to comedy to help cheer her up. He says of stand-up comedians: “Most of us come from unhappy childhoods.”

Fans of Louie Anderson already know about how he grew up in a home with an abusive, alcoholic father and a loving mother, because he’s used his childhood as joke material in his stand-up act for years. In the documentary, Anderson (who’s been doing stand-up comedy since 1978) says that he started out doing self-deprecating fat jokes, but he eventually switched to mostly jokes about his family when he saw that it got a stronger reaction from audiences. He also says that dressing in drag for his Christine Baskets character in the FX comedy series “Baskets” was a tribute to his mother, Ora Zella Anderson.

Anderson believes that there’s a reason why so many stand-up comedians come from dysfunctional, often abusive households: “I think comics are about control. They’re trying to control the whole situation, because we had no control growing up.”

Anderson also echoes what most stand-up comedians said in Comedy Central’s documentary “This Is Stand-Up” about gravitating to stand-up comedy because it was their way of being the center of attention and getting unconditional love from people, even if it’s for the limited time that the comedians are on stage.

Spade is another child of divorce. His father left his mother when he was a child, and he says it had long-lasting effects on him and undying respect for his mother, Judy Todd. “My mom is very positive and upbeat and also very funny and clever.”

Todd is seen visiting the set of her son’s talk show “Lights Out With David Spade” on her 82nd birthday, where the audience shouts “Happy Birthday” to her, and she’s invited on stage with the interview guests. Todd is somewhat “normal,” compared to what other comedians have to say about their mothers. She’s almost downright reserved, since she doesn’t do anything to embarrass her son.

The same can’t be said for what comedians Koy, Lee and Gold have to say about their mothers, whose cringeworthy mothering techniques have been fodder for much of these two comedians’ stand-up comedy acts. Koy, who was raised by his divorced Filipino mother, Josie Harrison, remembers how his outspoken mother would inflict terror on anyone who would dare to criticize him.

Bobby Lee talks about how his Korean immigrant mother, Jeanie Lee, used to call his name to get his attention, just so she could fart in front of him. And when they would go to a shopping mall, she would encourage Lee and his younger brother to play in the shopping-mall fountain, while she would take a nap on the floor in a store. Lee, who is a recovering alcoholic/drug addict, also claims that his mother was fairly good-natured about his multiple trips to rehab, whereas most other mothers would be horrified or ashamed. He describes a moment during a family rehab meeting where his mother got the family to laugh so hard in what was supposed to be a serious gathering, they almost got kicked out of the meeting.

Judy Gold says in the documentary that she had the quintessential nagging, over-protective Jewish mother, Ruth Gold, who liked to leave long, demanding phone messages. Gold’s mother passed away in 2015, but Gold still plays some of her mother’s phone messages in her stand-up comedy act. She also plays some of the phone messages in the documentary and remembers that she did not get much overt affection from her parents when she was growing up.

Gold also says that her parents weren’t the type to hug their children and say, “I love you.” Instead, in her family, people would be rewarded based on whoever did the best to “one-up” the others with a quip. Still, Gold says that toward the end of her mother’s life, she did express her love more openly, and she shares an emotionally touching memory of what happened the last time she spoke with her mother.

One of the issues that the documentary covers is how mothers react when they find out that their children want to be professional comedians. Roy Wood Jr. says it was a very uncomfortable experience for him, since he had dropped out of Florida A&M University after being put on probation for shoplifting. He secretly started doing stand-up comedy in 1999, and when he told his mother, Joyce Dugan Wood, that he wanted to do stand-up comedy full-time, she was very upset.

“She definitely felt my priorities were in the wrong place,” he says. So, in order to please his mother, Roy went back to Florida A&M. And when he graduated, he gave his mother the plaque of the college degree that “I didn’t need” and began pursuing a full-time comedy career. Now that he’s become a successful comedian (including a stint as a correspondent on “The Daily Show”), Wood says of his mother’s approval: “These days, I feel supported.”

When comedian/actress Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum) was 4 years old, her mother died, so when she was growing up, her paternal grandmother was Awkwafina’s main mother figure. While most people in Awkwafina’s family had expectations for her to going into a traditional profession, her paternal grandmother encouraged Awkwafina to pursue her dreams in entertainment.

Although many of these comedians say vulgar things about their families in their stand-up acts, the documentary shows that a lot of stand-up comedians have a soft spot for their mothers and like to hang out with them. Kristen Schaal and her look-alike mother, Pam Schaal, are seen shopping together at a fabric store. Norm Macdonald and his mother, Ferne Macdonald, play Scrabble and golf together. Wood’s mother Joyce accompanies him to a tuxedo fitting.

But not all of these mother-child moments are warm and fuzzy. Some of the comedians, such as Norton and Spade, admit to changing their shows to being less offensive and less raunchy if they know their mothers are going to be in the audience.

Norton says that he’s felt uncomfortable at times when his sex life (which he talks about in his stand-up comedy routine) is a topic of conversation with his mother. Norton remembers how after he did a stand-up show where he talked about his experiences of hiring hookers, he got a call from his mother suggesting that he join a gym to meet new people and improve his dating life. (In the documentary, he even plays the voice mail from 2001 to prove it.)

As for talking about their mothers in their stand-up comedy acts, Koy says that it was hard for him to do at first, but his mother and the rest of his family have gotten used to it. Feinstein says about her mother: “She likes it when I impersonate her. She gets upset if I don’t.”

Fortune Feimster says something similar, in an interview seated next her mother, Ginger Feimster: “She would rather me talk about her and be the center of attention than me not talk about her at all,” Fortune says. “She’s a good sport and she likes the attention.” Ginger Feimster says in response, “That is so true.”

Whether these comedians’ relationships with their mothers have been good or not-so-good, one thing that most people can agree on is a sentiment that Gold expresses in the movie that is a tried and true cliché: “There’s nothing like a mother’s love.” And at the very least, this documentary might inspire people to get in touch with their mothers to express gratitude if their mothering wasn’t a complete disaster.

Comedy Central premiered “Call Your Mother” on May 10, 2020.