‘Friends With Kids’ flips the rom-com script, except for when it doesn’t
There’s nothing more irritating than a pretender. Jennifer Westfeldt’s second feature as writer-director, over a decade after Kissing Jessica Stein, wants so badly to be construed as a transgressive anti-rom-com that subverts the norms of screen romance and family dynamics that it’s doubly disappointing when it becomes clear early on that Friends With Kids is essentially a meet-cute drawn out to 107 minutes, with only minor complications. Like child-rearing.
Westfeldt and Adam Scott sat as Julie and Jason, two old friends whose other friends (Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd, and Maya Rudolph) are married couple with kids, experiencing varying degrees of strain. They both want kids themselves, but don’t envy what they see as the trap of marriage, and the declining sense of romance and happiness that seems to them to be a contractual obligation. They brainstorm a wild and crazy idea: why not conceive a child, raise it together, but simply remain friends? After all, they’re not even slightly attached or attracted to each other. And sure enough, after the kid arrives, they both date other people (Edward Burns and Megan Fox), but soon after, the rom-com roadmap makes it clear where all of this “unorthdox” behavior is headed.
Besides the Apatow-style moral rigidity that lurks just under the surface, with heteronormative monogamy winning the day once more, the principal problem with Kids is that it’s neither funny nor dramatically effective. Westfeldt assembled a stellar cast, but aside from a dinner-table showcase for Scott and Hamm, they’re uniformly wasted in what amounts to bit parts, despite the fact that nearly every player has proven themselves to be adept in both comic and dramatic roles. (Wiig’s role is particularly, even cruelly, thankless.) A movie like Knocked Up can be forgiven some of its trespasses by loading up on comic camaraderie and sharp one-liners purloined from hours of improv, but the rigidly scripted nature of Westfeldt’s approach doesn’t allow for that sort of freewheeling feel, and the dialogue (not to mention a major gross-out scene) reeks of try-hard vulgarity. The movie feels at odds with its own attempted comic sensibility.
What makes the whole affair even more maddening is that Westfeldt does have a sense for conversations and topical avenues that aren’t typically exposed in mainstream comedies: the ways in which we illogically cultivate desires for certain kinds of people, the sometimes-grim realities of aging, the impact of separation and divorce on children, the gender inequalities inherent in modern dating, the tricky intersection of the practical and the ideal in long-term commitment. But ultimately all of these concerns, once raised, are made subordinate to the movie’s practically pathological need to supply Wilco-scored satisfaction in the form of True Love in the Nuclear Home. And that’s a cop-out even when it’s draped in f-bombs and baby diarrhea.