Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Friends With Kids Movie Review

I saw a trailer for the upcoming comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting, based on the best-selling book of the same name. Judging from the two minute trailer, it looks like yet another lowest common denominator comedy that gets the majority of its laughs from trafficking in stereotypes of the difficulties of parenting. In 2012 can Hollywood really do no better than jokes about incompetent dads who just don’t know what they’re doing? Seriously? This trailer came at the front of Jennifer Westfeldt’s startlingly excellent comedy Friends With Kids. The trailer for What to Expect doesn’t belong anywhere near the same screen as Westfeldt’s film.

Like Westfeldt’s first screenplay Kissing Jessica Stein, about a young woman who briefly explores the possibility that she might be a little more into women than men, Friends With Kids is exemplary in its understanding of character and romantic relationships. This is one of the best screenplays to come out of Hollywood that I’ve seen in a long while. It’s smart, witty and makes finely tuned observations about the difficulties of transitioning from young, wild, and childless to not-so-young, tense, and familiar.

Westfeldt plays Julie, a single woman in her late 30s living the dream in Manhattan along with five close friends. Jason (Adam Scott) is her best friend with whom she shares a completely platonic and almost fraternal bond. Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, reprising their Bridesmaids relationship) are newlyweds who can’t keep their hands off each other at the start of the film while Alex and Leslie (Chris O’Dowd and Maya Rudolph, completing the Bridesmaids mini-reunion) announce they’re expecting their first baby right after Jason and Julie make the faux pas of complaining about a family with children in the fancy restaurant where they meet. “Nothing’s going to change,” they all promise each other. The “four years later” title card that follows promises the big reveal of truth.

Now Alex and Leslie have a second baby and Ben and Missy are coping with their first while Jason and Julie are still struggling to find “the one.” A visit to Alex and Leslie’s chaotically disordered apartment in Brooklyn (a $45 cab ride from the swank digs of Manhattan) is enough to convince Jason and Julie that they’re better off without kids – at least temporarily. Soon they start spit-balling the rather unconventional idea of skipping past the marriage, dysfunction and divorce and just having a baby together with down-the-middle shared custody.

To call Friends With Kids a romantic comedy is not only an insult to this film, but also by default an unnecessary elevation of a whole genre of banal films to a level in which they don’t belong. What sets the film apart is, for one thing, a story that doesn’t involve the usual frantic running about by the romantic leads pretending like we don’t know exactly how it’s going to end. There is mercifully a complete absence of the trope of having a totally contrived conflict involving a misunderstanding that could be resolved by speaking a single sentence. Instead Westfeldt gifts her audience with something entirely original – a Hollywood comedy with brains in which the characters don’t speak in stock clichés. The situations are believable and what the characters say to one another and how they behave is more or less what I might expect from real people. Their reactions and behaviors are never the cartoonish antics that are the calling card of the Rom-Com genre.

It’s easy to argue, however, that the behavior of real people in most cases doesn’t really make for a watchable film. And I’m generally inclined to agree with that. But Westfeldt imbues her story, characters and situations with a depth of knowledge of the human condition that has the ability to teach us something about ourselves. Or maybe I just came to this movie at the right time in my life as a man roughly the age of these characters and with a toddler that, as much as I love him and would never give him up for anything, does prevent me from leading a very different kind of life than what I imagined for myself several years ago.

All this is obviously in praise of a screenplay that I simply think is top notch. This says nothing of Westfeldt’s direction of the film which demonstrates she’s equally as skilled behind the camera. The film opens with a briskly paced and funny credits sequence and she rarely lets up on the energy. I love that she’s not afraid to show marriage, relationship and having children for something other than the joyous wonder that our fairy tale visions would like to believe. The reality is that having children is an unbelievably stressful component to add to a relationship. Leslie and Alex have rough patches and Alex laments not having sex as often as he’d like, but he’s come to terms with that. Ben and Missy trade their blissful early romance for a soul-deadening marriage, the problems exacerbated by the presence of a child.

If I have to subtract points somewhere I’d say it’s when the film branches out to encompass more characters than Westfeldt is willing or able to flesh out entirely. After the birth of their stunningly perfect baby boy, Jason and Julie each enter the dating scene, striking up romances with Mary Jane and Kurt, respectively. These two never fully break free of the confines of their almost one-dimensional characters. Mary Jane is supposed to gorgeous and seductive, intelligent, talented and interesting. She is meant to be the perfect combination of qualities to actually make the serial-dating Jason settle down except for the unfortunate snag that she has zero interest in children. The inexplicable casting of Megan Fox as MJ (as she’s known to Jason) would suggest that carnal pleasure is the main quality Westfeldt was hoping to highlight. While in Kurt, the perfectly handsome, perfectly tall, perfectly divorced, perfectly put-together perfect man for Julie, Edward Burns brings enough charisma to elevate him from the page a little bit.

It seems for a while that the film’s conceit – that two people can decide to have a child without a romantic relationship between them and have everything remain hunky dory – is facile and somewhat irresponsible. It’s a long time before anyone considers that their child is a human being with feelings who will one day be curious about his origins. Just when I was beginning to think Westfeldt had left a major component out of her film, it turned out I underestimated her as a keen observer of life. Her eye and ear for both the comedy and tragedy of life keep her film teetering on the brink to the point that we don’t know whether things will end in triumph or in disaster, sort of like real life.

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