'Friends With Kids': Signs of Life in the Romantic Comedy
Today we review Jennifer Westfeldt's new film Friends With Kids.
Of all the things lost somewhere in the 1990s — cassingles, Dana Carvey, the ability to make actual plans — we should perhaps mourn, more than anything else, the romantic comedy. What was once such a fruitful genre — it gave us Harry and Sally, took us to weddings and funerals, even taught us that L.A. street walkers don't have it so bad — started to turn and curdle somewhere in the late '90s and, with only a few exceptions (Going the Distance, The Forty-Year-Old Virgin, Forgetting Sarah Marshall), has been going steadily downhill since. We don't even call them romantic comedies anymore; they're "romcoms," a nickname as blithe and annoying as the female leads in most examples of this new mutant breed, all of them teetering clumsily on heels (they're clumsy, see, that's their flaw) while running through the city, preferably juggling eight bags and an elaborate coffee. The romantic comedy became something slickly corporatized, co-opted by the kind of faux-zany, secretly regressive aspirationalism that Sex and the City cruelly foisted upon us. Much work needs to be done to fix this ailing genre, so thank god we have at least one true aficionado of the form, a hard worker and a champion, in Jennifer Westfeldt, whose new film Friends With Kids opens today.
Westfeldt's third feature as a writer and first as a director, Friends With Kids is by no means a flawless romantic comedy, but it sparkles with enough of the classic wit and pops with enough of the modern sexual frankness that it's certainly one of the best ones to come out in recent years. To be fair, classifying it solely as a romantic comedy might be a bit narrow. Westfeldt is concerned with romance here, yes, but there are also the matters of family, of babies, of social pressures and obligations being dealt with here. Westfeldt is too smart to make something one-note, so there is a jumble of ideas and themes at work in this picture. But mostly it's romance, sweet aching adult romance that feels richly authentic even if its surrounding environs are kissed with the kinds of blessings that only exist in the movies.
Though Westfeldt makes her films independently and her first feature, the breezy/cute Kissing Jessica Stein, dabbled in slightly outre topics of sexual experimentation, she is decidedly not a rebel. No, there is a distinct current of mainstream Nancy Meyersian lifestyle porn running through Friends With Kids, which presents us with six New York City friends who all have fabulous homes and go on bespoke wintertime ski vacations and dress in the comfy-expensive style of many a Meg Ryan role. And that's fine! That aesthetic has been aped so clunkily of late that it's nice to see someone get it right, to correctly and satisfyingly nail down the yuppie patois so it's tight and seamless but also welcoming, invitational. Westfeldt has made a very comfortable movie here, even when it's at its most awkward.
And, oh, it does get awkward. The movie primarily tells the story of Jason (Adam Scott) and Jules (Westfeldt), two college besties now on the edge of forty who are both perpetually single even though their closest friends (Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O'Dowd) have all coupled off and started breeding. Eventually, fed up with the waiting game and figuring that babies kill romance but are still worth having, Jason and Jules hatch a wacky plan: They'll have a baby together, raise it lovingly, but will never themselves become a couple. That way they can experience all the joys of child rearing but can also go off and seek hot romance with someone and not have the baby interfere. Perfect, right? Well, ha, no of course it is not perfect and it is the movie's highest demand that we willingly go along with this precarious plan. But, whatever, Westfeldt and company somehow manage to sell it and, to the movie's credit, we do get to see scenes of the friends calling bullshit on this whole proposition. In one particularly smart and funny scene, O'Dowd and Rudolph, a married couple with two small children who are slowly devolving into sexless mommy and daddy-ness, have a pre-bedtime argument about what their friends' scheme says about their own relationship. The sides and rhythms of the argument hum with truth and the ideas raised amidst the gentle bickering — particularly that, though it may seem ridiculous given all of its open-mindedness and liberalness and label-aversion, this bobo yuppie stuff is a Way Of Life that has definition, can be embraced or rebuked — are surprisingly meaty for what could easily have been a rather slight film.
O'Dowd and Rudolph are terrific in the film, warm and relatable and entirely unselfconscious, so much so that I almost wish they were the leads. Which isn't to say that Scott and Westfeldt aren't themselves appealing, they most certainly are, but sometimes Scott's dorky-cool-cocky schtick can grow a little tiresome and Westfeldt, with her avian features and whispery/croaking delivery, sometimes seems disarmingly fragile. You worry about her and you get a little annoyed by him and it can take one out of the story for a moment or two. But mostly they are solid, deftly maneuvering all the changes in emotional volume and temperature as this arrangement — which does indeed go from fabulously awkward but oddly touching sexual encounter to harried baby raising to unexpected feelings — plays out. As the two smallest parts of the sextet, the film's two biggest stars, Hamm and Wiig, look mostly comfortable in the background, but I do wish Westfeldt had given them just a little more to do. Not necessarily because it'd be fun to see more of Hamm & Wiig, which it would be. But rather because their characters are used to represent one possibility of how this whole nuclear family thing can turn out, but nothing in their story is as fleshed-out as it should be considering its intended weight; the whole thing feels a bit hurried or lopsided.
I'm not sure how may truths about coupling and babymaking are actually unearthed in this film, it's mostly a lot of questions and only a few simple, crowd-pleasing answers, but it's well worth the effort anyway. Westfeldt knows exactly when and how to use classic time-passing romcom montages, picks music perfectly, and lets the prickly sexual banter have its moments without overdoing it. Only on rare occasion does anything in her script seem hokey or false, but even then those too-perfect scenarios or too-clever remarks are forgiven, and perhaps even necessary, in this just ever so slightly stylized version of the modern world. It's romantic comedy land! Here we're allowed a few silly indulgences.
Because of her films' New Yorkiness, their neuroses, and Friends With Kids' particular affluent ramblingness, I'm tempted to declare Jennifer Westfeldt a budding young female Woody Allen. I know I'd not be the first person to draw that comparison. But I don't think I want to, I don't want to ossify her buoyant and limber wit, her gentle pizazz, by suggesting that she might too someday have to flee to Europe to shake off all the moss and cobwebs that gathered over decades of having the same conversations in the same East Side apartments. Let's instead remain hopeful and positive and open-minded about Ms. Westfeldt. After all, whether she likes it or not, a whole genre is suddenly counting on her.