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"Friends with Kids": "When Harry Met Sally" for 2012, plus a baby

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Reel Mama: "Friends with Kids": "When Harry Met Sally" for 2012, plus a baby

Friday, March 16, 2012

"Friends with Kids": "When Harry Met Sally" for 2012, plus a baby

Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott star as friends
who become parents with no strings attached

Would you rather die from an attack by an alligator or a shark?  This might seem an odd question, but to BFFs Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), discussing preferred ways to die is a favorite pastime, and it’s a running morbid inside joke between two lifelong friends who know each other almost better than they know themselves.  Both in their thirties, Julie and Jason share everything: commiserating over cocktails, gossip, and a desire to become a parent before time runs out.  They are the de facto couple in their circle of friends, and they are just friends, nothing more.
In terms of choosing a way to die, Julie reveals at the beginning that her main concern is “mitigating risk.”  She wants to avoid hazards and pitfalls, and postulates about how she would avoid death in elaborately crafted worst case scenarios.  Her desire to avoid hazards extends to becoming a parent.  She explains that she doesn’t want all the baggage that comes along with marriage and divorce (after having kids wreaks havoc on a marriage).  She expresses her desire to hit the fast forward button through time, and become a divorcée with the messy marriage already behind her: she would already be a mother, but unattached and ready to get back on the market and find Mr. Right.  Feeling uncharacteristically ready to take a chance, Julie and Jason reach a solution that will allow them to avoid risk-infested matrimony, at least on the surface.  They will conceive a child together through platonic sex, if that’s possible, and share joint custody, each agreeing to be “100% committed half the time.”  Each will remain a free agent in the dating pool.  At least in theory.  Things get complicated.
Westfeldt not only stars in Friends with Kids, but also wrote and directed the film.  It’s rare to find an artist who can convincingly wear three hats -- creative giants Woody Allen and Kenneth Branagh come to mind.  While Friends with Kids isn’t a towering achievement, Westfeldt is a triple threat, so hats off to her for this accomplishment in a field where female directors are often painfully underrepresented.  Friends with Kids definitely has its Woody-inspired moments.  The film is an ode to Manhattan of sorts (and an “up yours” to Brooklyn) as seen through the eyes of successful thirty-something professionals, but primarily it is an exploration of the life struggles of this unique subset of beautiful people.   
Westfeldt as Julie and Scott as Jason are charming and likable for the most part.  What’s unlikeable about these characters, Jason’s shallow obsession with “big tits” and Julie’s tendency to booze, is at least honest.  With the supporting cast I ran into the same problem that I had with The Descendants.  They are miserable, unlikeable potty mouths...after parenthood, that is.  At the beginning of the film Westfeldt portrays them as the fun and friendly couples in Julie and Jason’s social circle.  Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) are vivacious and sweet.  Ben (John Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) can’t get enough of each other, and are obsessed with the thrill of making love in public places.  
Post babies, the couples are constantly at each other’s throats, and often downright mean.  It’s a distorted view, perhaps intentionally so, of parents from the perspective of people without kids, namely Julie and Jason, but it’s an unfair and very broad generalization about parents as well, with the paradoxical and almost comedic message that marriage destroys families.  But becoming a parent doesn’t automatically turn people into monsters or pricks, as the still-single Julie and Jason prove when they have their baby and show the others how parenting is done by maintaining civility, a clean home, and cooking gourmet food.
The film’s greatest strength is the witty dialogue, and there are several lines that Woody Allen himself wouldn’t mind taking credit for.  Perhaps that’s why it feels a bit unnatural that an array of curse words bounce trippingly off the characters’ tongues at every opportunity.  The language doesn’t feel as organic to me as it does in a comedy like Bridesmaids because this is a stylish, urban, Woody Allen-style comedy, and I’m not sure it fits.  The last line in the film pushes the verbal envelope, but in a slick romantic comedy it’s sailor-style vulgarity that feels tacked on and out of nowhere.  The tired joke of the cursing toddler, done so well in Meet the Fockers, here just feels gratuitous, all the more because the parents do nothing except roll their eyes and whisper “great.”
The movie wants to be When Harry Met Sally for the new millennium, but it’s difficult for this film’s characters to follow this tried and true romantic comedy arc without seeming untrue to themselves.  One moment Jason is on the phone with his girlfriend Mary Jane, played by the astonishingly gorgeous Megan Fox, whose comic timing is a pleasant surprise, telling her “I have boners shooting out of my eyes,” then he’s bragging about his sexual exploits to Alex.  Can he truly have a change of heart, leave the land of one night stands and female-body-part obsessions, and truly love a girl (Julie) for her mind?
The cast brings its acting chops to the roles, and Wiig for example shows touching vulnerability with her character as the movie progresses.  Wiig and Rudolph are so talented that they could convincingly perform the phone book, but Westfeldt does provide plenty for these gifted actors to work with in terms of their struggles.  Westfeldt is skilled both at comic timing and eliciting strong performances, even in the ones that portray virtual stereotypes of miserable parents.
Reel Mama’s rating: Not appropriate for under 16 due to language and adult situations.


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