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?"
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).
"The kernel of the story came from being out of sync with your peer group," explained Westfeldt, who has no children. "You're watching your friends in this game making this transition [having kids], and you're close to the experience, but still outside of it." Even contemporary romantic comedies have a bad habit of depicting childless women in their late 30s as baby-crazed nut jobs (The Back-up Plan, The Switch) or frigid corporate climbers, too busy busting balls in board meetings to condescend to poopy diapers (The Proposal). During a chillingly realistic argument between the toddler-laden Leslie (Rudolph) and Alex (O'Dowd), the two wonder why their friends have decided to go through with such a harebrained scheme. "Maybe he feels sorry for her," Alex offers. "This might be it for her." Leslie responds with righteous indignation: "It for her? She's not dying!" Plenty of women decide not to have children and go on to lead normal, productive, happy lives. That childlessness might not be a tragedy for a woman is a radical notion, even in 2012, and one this movie wisely embraces.
Megan Fox's character, MJ, a free-spirited dancer much lusted after by all the male characters, does not want kids (in fact, she says, she "shouldn't be trusted around any living thing"). Far from finding such a declaration alarming or even off-putting, new dad Jason is turned on by her unapologetic selfishness. And why not? His baby already has a great mom! With the alluringly diaper-averse MJ, Jason can have the kind of wild sex and spontaneous fun a man could never have with his wife, let alone the mother of his child. In one sense, this represents progress: Megan Fox gets to play an unabashedly sexy and truly independent woman who is attractive to men precisely because she's not your typical bland, baby-loving, sugar-but-no-spice rom-com leading lady. But what about all the wives and moms who want to be seen as sexy too (especially by their husbands)? In this movie, the men—all fathers by the time Megan Fox's character is introduced—pant over the child-free-by-choice MJ, while the women go gaga for a good dad (Ed Burns as Kurt, a handsome divorcé who Julie dates). Kurt is the only man in the film sensitive enough to stay in the cabin during a weekend ski trip to Vermont to help the women care for the kids; the rest of the men hit the slopes with MJ. If this is an honest depiction of real differences between the sexes, pity the poor girl who marries any man but Kurt.
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Friends with Kids tackles scary, real-life questions: What if I'm not as attracted to my wife after we have a baby? What if my husband isn't as attracted to me? What if we stop having sex? What if marriage starts to feel less like a cozy little club for two and more like a prison cell? Westfeldt's ensemble approach allows us to examine a wider than usual range of attitudes toward and choices about parenthood: Kurt embraces the responsibilities of parenthood with less ambivalence than anyone else in the movie; Kristen Wiig's and Jon Hamm's characters face the misery of attempting to raise children in a failing marriage; Jason and Julie, whose relationship is loving but fraught, come to realize that even the most well-intended choices can have unforeseen and painful consequences; Megan Fox's MJ unequivocally rejects motherhood. In the end, the kids are thriving and the adults are more or less fine.
The movie's characters mirror our tendency to rationalize whatever choices we have made by comparing our lives to the lives of those who chose differently. Like a good therapist, Friends with Kids gives us permission to stop beating up ourselves and others. Yet Westfeldt valiantly resists being quite so simplistic. Indignantly defending his and Julie's unorthodox arrangement to the rest of their friends, Jason says, "The proof's in the pudding; Joe's a great kid." To which Jon Hamm's character snorts, "Sure, he's great now—he's one!" The slight hint of menace in this retort is perfect: everyone's screwed up, or fine, or a little bit of both—for now—but no one can predict the future.
Friends with Kids' appeal is due in part to its refusal to take sides. Each character makes a different set of choices, but in the end no one is clearly or permanently better off than anyone else. Westfeldt manages to puncture the smug sanctimoniousness of parents who deem their single friends selfish and immature. Yet she does not mock or condemn people who choose to have children. Parenthood changes people, but it doesn't transform them into monsters. The screenwriter's compassion for all of her characters is evident and admirable. As Westfeldt put it, "Each character, to me, felt like someone in some form that I'd met." Friend with Kids isn't perfect, but it's a genuinely funny movie with a great cast, a good heart, and a kind word for everyone—and it's totally worth getting a babysitter for.