The ensemble comedy skewers and celebrates how kids screw with relationships.
Does parenthood ruin everything?
In a word, yes. At least, that's the case if you believe the characters of Friends With Kids, writer and actress Jennifer Westfeldt's (Kissing Jessica Stein, Ira & Abbey) directorial debut. After popping out a kid or two, your now-cavernous vagina will be as empty as your social calendar—or so fears poor Julie, the film's heroine (Jennifer Westfeldt). She worries she'll end up like her friend Missy (Kristen Wiig), whose husband Ben (Jon Hamm) has taken to the bottle, and now skulks around murmuring hurtful comments about his wife and her repulsive post-pregnancy body into his half-empty Scotch. When Julie and her friend Jason (Adam Scott) go over to their friend Leslie's house for dinner, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) furiously chases a shrieking toddler around the living room, while her husband Alex (Chris O' Dowd) barricades himself in the bathroom to enjoy the only private moment he's had in the last 12 months. Traumatized by the hash babies have made of their friends' lives in the course of a few short years, Julie and Jason shake their heads over beers and a half-eaten Magnolia cake (that ubiquitous wink to urban frivolity) and ask, "What the hell happened to those people we used to know?"
The movie punctures the smugness of parents who deem their single friends selfish, but doesn't mock people who choose to have kids.
Bored bachelor Jason wants children, but realizes, after watching his friends go through the process of obtaining them, that "The setup is flawed." The messy business of childrearing saps the crackling heat from a marriage; couples go from not being able to keep their hands off of each other to not wanting to be in the same room. So why not just go for it with his best friend Julie? They're both gainfully employed Manhattanites, they're in love—the call-each-other-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-yet-somehow-entirely-platonic variety—they both want kids, and they're not getting any younger. Julie seems to be in her late 30s, and gets pregnant after a deeply awkward, sweetly adolescent one-night stand with Jason—a minor miracle the denizens of Upper West Side fertility clinics would surely envy. Once the little bundle of joy arrives, things get, you guessed it, a little more complicated.
All romantic comedies require a certain suspension of disbelief, and Friends with Kids is no exception. We're expected not to ponder too deeply such mysteries as why a couple of hard-drinking, good-looking kids like Jason and Julie never once hooked up before Operation Fertilization or how Julie can afford a pre-war classic six on Riverside Drive on an assistant's salary. But we're happy to play dumb, in part because this movie achieves that holy grail of modern comedy and box office success: It's something both men and women can enjoy. Last year, Bridesmaids was hailed as a major victory on those terms, and with its cast reunited in this movie (Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, and Chris O'Dowd star)—and Megan Fox's cleavage thrown into the mix for good measure—Friends with Kids transcends the Apatow formula of dick jokes for the fellas and feelings for the ladies. It manages to parse a tricky transition with humor and sensitivity that appeals to both sexes. Westfeldt said it was her insight as an actress that led her to write all eight parts as honest, fully formed individuals: "I think about as an actress, if I were playing that role, whether guy or girl, old or young, what would make sense to me, what would be a truthful thing to say?"
For the most part, she nails it. Friends with Kids gets plenty of laughs and many groans of recognition. The only aspect of the dialogue that feels unconvincing is the aggressive raunchiness of the male characters in mixed company. Do men make juvenile jokes about masturbation, sex, and women's bodies? Without a doubt. Do they do this loudly, constantly, with almost manic vulgarity, in the presence of their wives and girlfriends? Only if they are very crude or very stupid, and the men of Friends with Kids aren't meant to be either. These scenes highlight the difficulty of writing male characters honestly: How to make them plausibly male, with all the requisite misbehaving, without alienating female audience members? Westfeldt tackles this problem by exporting the men's locker room humor to the eat-in kitchens of Park Slope, which just comes off as unrealistic. With the exception of Ed Burns and the partial exception of O'Dowd, the utter charmlessness of the men, particularly the leading man, is both depressing and odd. And beware the movie's last two lines of dialogue; if you bring a date, those two little sentences will almost certainly kill the mood (unless your date is exceptionally crude or self-loathing). Jason's saving grace is that he loves Julie and has known her forever, but is it too much to ask for a leading man capable of repartee more sophisticated than a series of vagina jokes?
Westfeldt acknowledges the challenges of the genre: "There are always tropes in romantic comedies, and I tried to both subvert them and embrace them." Embrace them she did; Friends with Kids will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen When Harry Met Sally—perhaps a touch too familiar, in its slavish adherence to the older movie's plot structure and central pairing. And of course the frequent anatomical and scatological humor is reminiscent of Apatow. But Westfeldt also deserves credit for what she does differently, which is a lot.
For one thing, her men, crassness aside, are a cut above Apatow's. They're more recognizably adult, in part because they aren't mourning the loss of intimate ties to other men—in fact, they miss their wives, or at least how they felt about their wives before the kids came along. With the partial exception of O'Dowd's character, this loss leaves them clueless and bereft yet strangely powerless to fix or even address it. They seem unsure of what's going on and of how, exactly, their once-pleasant lives have become so "shitty." Friends with Kids features more sadness, confusion, and irredeemably bad behavior than most romantic comedies. This makes it both more recognizable (people say cruel things without immediately—or ever—apologizing, just like in real life!) and harder to watch (the husband-on-wife cruelty is particularly tough to take).