The motherhood comedy-drama Otherhood drops on Netflix on August 2, and I’m warning you right now that people are going to have opinions. It doesn’t matter whether this particular mom-com-dram is even good—it's fine!—because it’s Felicity Huffman’s first major, forward-facing role since her arrest in March as part of the salacious college admissions scandal (she pled guilty to conspiracy to commit mail fraud in May and is scheduled to be sentenced in September). Mind you, Huffman appeared (but was not prominently billed) in the groundbreaking When They See Us, Ava Duvernay’s Netflix limited series about the Central Park Five that premiered in May. Otherhood was originally going to come out in late April...until Netflix pushed back its release after Huffman’s arrest. That means there’s the feeling—I don’t think I’m alone in this—that seeing this movie is a little bit taboo. In other words, it’s the Streisand effect.
For the uninitiated, the Streisand Effect is the modern phenomenon of calling wider public attention to something by attempting to bury it. It's provenance is a 2003 incident in which singer/actress Barbra Streisand sued a photographer for taking pictures of her Malibu home as part of a project to photograph buildings on the California coastline alleging violation of privacy. She attempted to have the photographs taken down, but the case ended up generating so much buzz that the image became widely disseminated. (Streisand’s lawsuit was eventually dismissed.)
My favorite recent example of the paradox is from Beyoncé’s killer Super Bowl Halftime Show performance in 2014. Buzzfeed published a story about the singer’s intensely concentrated facial expressions during the show—“The 33 Fiercest Moments from Beyoncé’s Halftime Show”—and then received an email from her publicist asking for the “unflattering” images to be taken down. Buzzfeed rightfully refused (they’re a news organization who shouldn’t be bullied by a publicist, even if she does represent our lord and savior Bey!) and then ran another story that went viral, titled “The ‘Unflattering’ Photos Beyoncé’s Publicist Doesn’t Want You To See.”
It’s hard to know what Netflix’s options were when it came time to release Otherhood in April, and it couldn’t have been an easy decision to push the premiere back. It doesn’t seem like a small budget affair: The film also stars Patricia Arquette and Angela Bassett, two bankable A-listers with enough of a draw on their own to release the movie regardless of how Huffman’s case turns out. But the move to August meant that my viewing of the movie pointedly cast it in the harsh light of the scandal, in a way it wouldn’t have if they’d gone ahead with its initial April release. Don’t get me wrong, I get why they didn’t—running it in April would have made the movie a punchline rather than a piece of work to be judged on its own. I’m just saying that moving it didn’t really help either. It’s too soon to be a Huffman comeback, too late to benefit from the eyeballs the scandal might have garnered it. (And doubly late in the sense that it's tied to Mother’s Day but is airing nearer to Labor Day.)
The movie centers around three moms—Bassett, Arquette, and Huffman—who became friends when their boys met as children and then grew up together. Now that their sons are adults and the moms’ personal lives cause them varying degrees of ennui, they decide one Mother’s Day to crash their sons’ lives in New York.
It’s a cute premise, and Huffman, Arquette, and Bassett are all respectively endearing, gorgeous, and great at acting. But while each woman is clearly supposed to fill some archetype, I had trouble figuring out who represented what: Arquette is kind of a hippie, which we find out by way of her quirky luggage; Bassett is a reserved widow who's great at guilting; Huffman is a plastic surgery–favoring divorcée who, we are told, was a bit of an absentee mom and who, we are also told, met her son’s father at Studio 54. For most of the movie, it remains kind of unclear why the moms have even decided to go to New York, and what they want specifically from their sons. And don't get me started on the sons, all three of whom are ungrateful, condescending, and dismissive, and none of whom I could bring myself to give a modicum of a shit about as characters.
But the truth is, I watched it because of Huffman’s legal troubles, not in spite of them. That, to me, is the Streisand effect in a nutshell. I’m not saying Huffman couldn’t land a comeback—she's talented, and as problematic as her involvement in the scandal was, male celebrities launch comebacks after much worse (though that line of reasoning requires willfully choosing to ignore the countless more deserving people who might have attended top-tier schools had rich parents not cheated their children’s way into them—a topic for another day). But this ain’t it. Sorry to rain on Otherhood’s parade.
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