Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids has a cute premise, an appropriately fluffy comedic ensemble, and just enough of a thought-provoking motive to overcome its admittedly gift-wrapped final destination. It’s not as surprising or original as the film that put Westfeldt on the map — Charles Herman-Wurmfeld’s Kissing Jessica Stein, from 2001, which Westfeldt starred in and also co-wrote — but that doesn’t change the fact that, comparatively speaking, Friends with Kids is still, for better or worse, a cut above most of its rom-com genre counterparts.
The story concerns a core group of six people, each of whom confront the transition into parenthood in markedly different ways. There’s Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), who start out as a doused-in-lust couple before changing gears, drastically, into a world of bickering, miscommunication, and unhappiness once they become pregnant. Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) are a bit more stable, with a foundation that includes a mutual respect and consideration that Ben and Missy lack, but the onslaught of children is no different even for them. It requires hard, grating, and tiring devotion, and a willingness to accept that the spark of first-love fireworks will have to take a back seat to the newborn’s needs.
When Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt) — long-standing best friends, both with unfulfilled love lives — witness the decay in their friends’ relationships, they make a pact to confront the process of child-bearing without the messiness of marriage. They decide to have a baby together and raise it fifty-fifty, splitting the responsibility right down the middle, on the basis that they’re not attracted to each other — while, of course, repressing the fact that they are — and will therefore be immune to the pressures of a hostile marriage. They’ll have the kid, care for it diligently, and be free to explore relationship options elsewhere.
Their plan produces sky-high results, initially, and there’s a funny moment when the two other couples — both rather skeptical of the progressive-parenting arrangement — visit them for brunch and are surprised to be greeted by a smiling baby, a happy pseudo-couple, and, most of all, a crystal-clean Manhattan apartment. Throw in the sleek espresso machine, and Jason, Julie, and their little infant start to look like they’re on their way to a Christmas photo-shoot for Gap.
The unfiltered satisfaction of their contract begins to decline, however, when Jason and Julie each embark on serious-seeming relationships — he with a Broadway dancer named Mary Jane (Megan Fox), and she with a tall, handsome man named Kurt (Edward Burns), who’s just about the kindest man you’ll see in a movie all year. Both Mary Jane and Kurt are, without exaggerating, picture-perfect options for their significant others, but sometimes it takes meeting the perfect person to realize that they’re not actually the right person. Or something like that.
The climax of Jason and Julie’s downhill slide comes, literally, when they invite everyone in their circle to a cabin in Vermont for a weekend skiing trip. The centerpiece that’s created here — a grueling, opening-of-the-wounds dinnertime conversation — is the main reason to see the film, and even if it hits the hammer a touch too rigidly with the Hamm-Wiig conflict, it hits everything else in the scene with the correct blend of subtlety and forthrightness. It’s the scene in the movie where these characters feel most like real, conflicted human beings, as opposed to locked-in variations of married-couple stereotypes.
The film’s constant, though, is the cast, which is entertainingly up-to-speed even when the writing isn’t quite. O’Dowd, a stand-out in last year’s Bridesmaids, is again razor-sharp in a slightly formulaic role — when he receives the news from Jason and Julie of their wanting a kid without the tangled troubles of marriage, his complete understanding of it, while seated next to his wife, is a treat. So, too, is Megan Fox, who shows up in a meet-cute with Scott’s Jason and right away elevates the scene with an agile, self-knowing sense of timing.
Refreshing above all, however, are the nature-of-marriage questions asked by Westfeldt’s screenplay. Though Friends with Kids is too mainstream-flavored to legitimately engage with those questions — the ending is a pre-written conclusion, and the way the kid’s used is simply cruel — at least it comes out and asks them, openly and honestly. It doesn’t take much memory-jogging to discern how few other recent entries in this genre could make a claim for having that same quality.
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