By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)
Looking at Friends With Kids as writer/director/actress Jennifer Westfeldt’s latest offspring, think of this film as her troubled third child, loveable but problematic. While her first two progeny (2001’s Kissing Jessica Stein and 2006’s Ira & Abby) were both critically acclaimed, this third creation suffers from a schizoid swing, at times funny and unique, and at times disappointingly trite.
A social comedy with some nice bite, the story introduces two happily-married couples, in love and in lust who, as custom dictates, decide to propagate. It’s not the babies who get thrown out with the bathwater but, rather, the spouses’ relationships. Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) end up screaming at each other around the clock, each one certain that the other isn’t holding up her/his end of the family duties. Meanwhile, Missy and Ben (Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm), once unable to keep their hands off each other, slowly drink themselves into a disgusted, muffled stupor. (If this foursome seems familiar, note that they all appeared in last year’s Bridesmaids.)
The two outliers are the leads, portraying the platonic heterosexual couple Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott). While they confess to each other that they want a child, they’re afraid that they might end up with the kind of imploding relationships that they’ve witnessed from their friends. Eternal optimists, they also believe that true love just may be around the next corner. So as best buddies, they decide to breed together and share custody together, all the while keeping an eye out for their respective Mr./Ms. Rights.
Unfortunately, these two actors are woefully miscast. Though greatly appealing in her two earlier self-written movies, Westfeldt does herself no favors by trebling her duties as lead actor, writer and now, as first-time director. She attempts the feat of the extreme triple threat (that is, writing the script, and directing yourself as the lead actor). It’s nearly impossible to pull off, save for such artists as auteur Woody Allen and consummate actor Kenneth Branagh. (While we also can incorporate the likes of Miranda July, Julie Delpy and Lena Dunham into this triad, these filmmakers gravitate toward the world of the self-revelatory indie, rather than taking on a more traditional comedy such as Friends With Kids.) Here, Westfeldt’s acting comes off as unfocused, as if we’re witnessing her directorial distraction firsthand, expecting her to say something to the cameraman over here, or the lighting guy over there. Playing opposite her, Scott (Parks & Recreation, Our Idiot Brother, Leap Year) doesn’t quite fit the bill as the womanizing, serial dater who ultimately realizes his true affection for Julie. He appears as a lightweight and, like Westfeldt, comes up short when the role demands an exploration of deeper, more heartfelt issues.
That said, when Westfeldt steps out of the picture, she mines new facets from Wiig, who trades in her go-to flip, funny girl for a woman viscerally aching over her lost love. Westfeldt also elicits a surprisingly strong performance from the usually vapid Megan Fox, who plays an ambitious Broadway dancer fiercely rejecting anything or anyone who might get in her way.
But as the screenwriter, Westfeldt litters her work with some awfully large plot holes, such as:
– A promising new beau for Julie, played by Edward Burns, simply evaporates off the screen with no further reference;
– Megan Fox’ ambitious chorine, despite her hatred of babies and her embrace of her independence above all, inexplicably chooses to moves in with Jason;
– A late thirtysomething couple conceives on their very first try; and
– Given the story’s fairly negative spin on procreation, why on earth would Julie and Jason want to have a child at all? How is it this topic is never explored?
The first two-thirds work are rife with such smart humor, it hurts when the third act devolves into a done-to-death When Harry Met Sally wannabe.
It’s not that Westfeldt isn’t brave. But if she’d been a bit braver, keeping rom-com convention at bay, she could have conceived a much brighter baby. And for that, we want to cry “Waaaaaah.”
Rating on a scale of 5 fetal positions: 2.5
Release date: March 9, 2012
Written and directed by: Jennifer Westfeldt
Cast: Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Fox, Edward Burns
Running Time: 107 minutes