Friends With Kids: An Unconventional Parenting Setup in a Highly Standard Rom-Com
In the opening scene of Friends With Kids, a conspicuously placed copy of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion on the bedside table of Jason (Adam Scott) marks him as a nonbeliever. His doubt also extends to conjugal matters, for he is unconvinced that married parents could ever be happy. Sharing his skepticism is Julie (writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt), his best friend since college and fellow horrified witness to the misery that seems to dominate the lives of their wedded pals who have babies — Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd), and Missy and Ben (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, Westfeldt's longtime partner). So close that they call each other at 4 a.m. to compare notes on the one-night stands sleeping beside them, the two late-30-ish chums, who live in the same rent-stabilized Upper West Side apartment building, decide to make a kid the old-fashioned way — a one-time-only act — and raise him together but remain uncoupled and pursuing other bedmates.
This unconventional arrangement will resolve conventionally, of course, as per the immutable laws of romantic comedy, which regard single adults as scourges to be cured. But further hobbling the march to the inevitable that stunts Friends With Kids — Westfeldt's directorial debut and her third film as writer-producer-star — is the frequently weak dialogue ("I'm a grower; not a shower," Jason says to Julie of the appendage that he will soon stick inside her for the baby-making business) and forced character epiphanies. "I've loved this girl for 19 years," Jason, a commitment-shy roué declares of his bestie as convincingly and as passionately as a junior-high schooler reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Jason and Julie's moments of actual child-rearing are similarly perfunctory, their son (who we see from birth through toddlerhood) almost beside the point — the kid's just a plot contrivance to get Mom and Dad to realize their true feelings for each other.
Although uneven, Westfeldt's first big-screen splash, Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), in which she and her co-scripter and co-star Heather Juergensen play straight gals who go lez for a while, still impressed with its tart one-liners and precise observations about the folly inherent in all relationships. Friends With Kids, in contrast, is a baggy assembly of generic talk about dyads and too many square pronouncements. When Jason complains to Julie that "Brooklyn is the new Manhattan" during their cab ride across the East River to Leslie and Alex's brownstone, the observation sounds as fresh as it did when last proclaimed by The New York Times style section in 1998. Intriguing ideas that expose ugly truths — such as the affront the married parents feel when Jason and Julie announce their child-rearing plan, which Alex dismisses spitefully with the casually sexist, "He's got all the time in the world, but this is it for her" — fade quickly, so as not to interfere with the film's overall vanilla tone.
Just as Friends With Kids compares unfavorably to Westfeldt's earlier effort, her cast members' previous projects further highlight this film's shortcomings. TV vet Scott (whose role here shares some DNA with the supporting part he played in last year's feeble Our Idiot Brother as the platonic apartment-building neighbor who becomes something more) is perhaps now best known for Parks and Recreation. But five years ago, he starred in HBO's excellent (and quickly canceled) Tell Me You Love Me, a shrewd, tough look at three different couples whose struggles with intimacy lead them to therapy. The grown-up honesty and painfully recognizable scenarios on that show, in which Scott memorably played a husband growing increasingly resentful over his wife's all-consuming baby fever — essentially the opposite of what Jason goes through in Friends With Kids — is watered down in Westfeldt's film to sub-sitcom-level bickering and passive-aggressive sabotaging among the marrieds.
And much to this film's detriment, the four battle-weary parents are played by actors from Bridesmaids, a broad studio comedy that nonetheless conveyed hilarious insight into the horrors of parenting, living single, and settling down — qualities missing from the small-scale, "indie-personal" Friends With Kids. (Even FWK's explosive-diarrhea scene is worse than the one in Bridesmaids.) As always, Wiig and Rudolph are balm onscreen, their peerless body-language skills at least animating Westfeldt's tepid dialogue on occasion. The writer-director herself remains an unsteady presence in front of the camera — yet another marked change from Kissing Jessica Stein, in which Westfeldt displayed a talent for amusing neurotic spiraling. Here, the funny wheel-spinning is replaced with just going through the motions.
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