Monday, May 26, 2008

Baby Mama

By Elise Nakhnikian

As a member of the oops-I-forgot-to-have-a-baby generation, I have a love-hate relationship with movies about pregnancy and parenthood. Parenthood is to me what a Barbara Cartland novel is to a hopeless romantic without a soulmate: intense vicarious pleasure. But that pleasure can morph into pain with alarming speed, like the time I mortified myself by sobbing as a nurse comforted the Charlize Theron character in The Cider House Rules after her abortion, reassuring her that she’d have beautiful children someday.

All this is by way of explaining why I didn’t see Baby Mama until last weekend – and why this feel-good movie left me feeling so bad.

A comedy is about something as primal as a woman’s longing to have kids can have enormous lasting power if its humor is rooted in real situations and feelings. That’s what made both Juno and Knocked Up so funny last year, and what made so many of us care about their characters – in spite of Juno’s sometimes annoyingly mannered dialogue and the fairy-tale Beauty-and-the-Beast mismatch at the heart of Knocked Up.

Like Juno, Baby Mama is about class in America – specifically, the strained intimacy that can develop when working-class women birth babies to be raised by upper-class women. In a refreshing twist, both movies empathize with their tightly wound, yuppie would-be mothers as well as their more emotionally accessible, working-class baby mamas.

The women in both stories support each other, too, for the most part, and their heroines are gratifyingly self-sufficient, making their own decisions and living their lives without apology or crippling self-doubt while their men flit about the edges of the story, offering themselves as romantic partners or sympathetic sounding boards.

But Baby Mama lacks Juno’s spark and originality, falling back on canned characters and stock situations.

Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) is a 37-year-old executive in a Whole Foods-style organic food company who has worked her way up to a vice presidency by doing “everything I was supposed to do.” She’s used to taking care of business, so when she begins to yearn for a baby, she hires a surrogate mother to bear her one. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a gum-snapping, working-class woman who’s as irresponsible as Kate is responsible.

Almost immediately after Kate hires her, Angie’s chaotic life collapses and she moves into Kate’s spotless apartment. Much Odd Couple-style wackiness ensues, but Kate and Angie develop (surprise!) a warm, mutually nurturing friendship.

Together they go to a humorously New Age-y birthing class, test super strollers, and encourage each other to branch out and take risks. They have their inevitable falling out, but they clear that up pretty well in the obligatory court scene.

Poehler and Fey have worked together for years on Saturday Night Live, where writer-director Michael McCullers (Austin Powers in Goldmember) also worked as a writer. Their comfort with and delight in each other makes Kate and Angie’s friendship almost believable, especially during the few times – like when Kate and Angie sing karaoke together – when the actresses break out of the sit-com-y mold that entraps them, evoking the spontaneity of real life.

The rest of the cast is also fine. Kate’s mother is a walking stereotype, a stiff-necked, narrow-minded patrician -- but if that’s the part you’re casting, you can’t do much better than Holland Taylor, who brings her usual satiric edge to the role. As Kate’s married-with-kids sister, Maura Tierney has almost nothing to do but does it well, suggesting both sympathy and smugness. As Kate’s doorman and confidant, Oscar, Romany Malco makes a likeable and funny “magical negro,” as Spike Lee calls the subordinate black characters whose only function is to help a movie’s white protagonists. And Steve Martin is clearly having a blast in full-blown supercilious/oblivious mode as Kate’s boss Barry, a self-infatuated hippie entrepreneur who likes to brag about the time he “toasted pine nuts at the mouth of an active volcano.”

Their charm and goofiness gives Baby Mama its moments. But for the most part it’s dully formulaic, even mean-spirited.

The script shows no mercy to Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver), the head of Kate’s surrogacy agency, who commits the apparently unforgiveable sin of having children well into middle age. Granted, she’s a pill, flaunting her pregnancy in front of her frustrated clients, but must she be treated like a biological freak?

Baby Mama raises and refutes the usual objections to surrogacy, asking us to empathize with Kate’s decision to go that route. Fair enough, but why isn’t that same charity extended to women who get pregnant in their 50s? Haven't we always winked at men having babies much later in life that that?

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