Friday, March 16, 2012

Friends With Kids

Every few years, Jennifer Westfeldt writes herself a plum part in a romantic comedy that’s just topical enough to seem a little edgy, if you don’t look too closely.

In 2001, around the time the word “bi-curious” was entering the lexicon, Westfeldt co-wrote Kissing Jessica Stein and played the title character, a straight woman who tries sex with a woman as the solution to her romantic dry spell. Five years later, as the screenwriter and costar of Ira and Abby, she toyed with therapist-induced neurosis and a type of commitment phobia (the unshakeable conviction that there may be someone better in the rear-view mirror or right around the corner) that’s endemic to New York. And now, in Friends With Kids, she plays a woman convinced that she can beat the reproductive system and bypass all the problems that having babies has introduced into the lives of her formerly fun friends.

After all, as Westfeldt’s Julie and her BFF Jason (Adam Scott) assure each other, all they need to do to make themselves a baby is get through a bout or two of platonic sex. Then, after it’s born, they can alternate custody days and nights, so they each have plenty of free time to keep looking for what they cloyingly call “my person.”

I’m not ruining anything by telling you that Jules and Jason are, in fact, each other’s “person,” since that is made obvious from the scene that plays over the opening credits. Despite all the talk about how babies change your life, the kids in this movie are so many little plot devices, popping up now and then to push things in a new direction and then fading back into the woodwork. So the only real question the movie raises is how long it will take Julie and Jason to realize that they’re in love—simultaneously, that is, since of course there will be times when one of them feels the love but the other can’t reciprocate yet.

We’re trained practically from birth to respond to that plot line, so a film built around it doesn’t have to do much to activate our amygdalas. But to get truly engaged, we need to care about the leads, believe in their chemistry, and enjoy the insults and missed signals they exchange on the way to their happy ending, and Friends with Kids doesn’t make any of that easy.

Scott, who plays Amy Poehler’s character’s sweet, nerdy boyfriend Ben on Parks and Rec, holds up his end of the deal, making Jason thoroughly relatable. Jason’s commitment phobia (as his and Julie’s mutual friend Leslie points out, Jason is as fickle with his girlfriends as he is loyal to his friends) could easily have played as plain old-fashioned jerkiness if he were played by a less sympathetic actor. But Scott gives Jason an air of thoughtful puzzlement that makes him look like a man picking his way through uncertain turf, and a welcome dusting of humor that keeps his intensity from getting tiresome.

But as hard as Scott and the script work to convince us that Jason adores Julie, whether he knows it or not, Westfeldt makes her a little too easy for the rest of us to resist. Her slightly wooden acting style and coy body language amplify the distractingly doll-like appearance of her tight lips, swollen cheeks, and shiny skin. This film exudes the faint stench of a vanity production, perhaps because Westfeldt gave herself the starring role even though she’s the weakest actor in a large, often wildly overqualified cast.

As in the other movies she scripted, Westfeldt stuffs her directing debut with thinly developed minor characters and minor complications, as if hoping to distract us from the predictability of the main story arc. It’s frustrating to see Kristen Wiig so badly used as half of one of the two couples that are Jason and Julie’s best friends (her husband is played by Mad Men’s John Hamm, Westfeldt’s long-time boyfriend). Miming delight or fighting back tears in the background, Wiig barely even gets a chance to speak, let alone to be funny. At least her Bridesmaids buddy Maya Rudolph gets to radiate a little heat as she plays another of the six, Leslie, in sassy earth-mother mode.

Jokes about penis size and vaginas stretched out by childbirth may be borderline edgy, but the frequent cracks about Jason’s height and Julie’s fast-approaching reproductive sell-by date could have come out of Phyllis Diller’s joke file. Meanwhile, what passes for irony in the sitcom-y script is a scene in which Leslie and her husband announce over dinner that they’re having a baby—the group’s first—and insist that “Everything’s going to be the same. Nothing’s gonna change.” Next up: a title card saying “Four years later” and another dinner party for the six at which, of course, everything’s different.

Har har, I guess.

Written for TimeOff

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