Thursday, March 8, 2012

With friends like these ....

A trendy sitcom of a movie substitutes banter for real depth.
Call me old-fashioned, but I still cling to the expectation that movies should to be richer, bigger and more emotionally savvy than anything that's available on TV. While watching Friends With Kids, a rom-com from director Jennifer Westfeldt, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had tuned into a sitcom made by a writer/director who was well-versed in the distressingly insular language of contemporary relationships.

Westfeldt's movie feels smart in the way that sit-coms sometimes feel smart; it's almost as if issues are being referenced rather than explored.

Like most rom-coms, Friends With Kids springs from a contrivance. Two friends (Westfeldt and Adam Scott) are wary of the pitfalls that can sabotage sustained relationships, but want to become parents anyway. So, they decide to avoid the problems faced by their friends with children and have a kid without the burden of also having a romantic relationship. Because they're not sexually attracted to each other, they think it should be easy to have a kid, share parenting chores and otherwise get with their lives. It helps that they live in the same Manhattan apartment building.

For the most part, the movie's more traditional couples are accessories that support the main endeavor. Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd play a husband and wife who fight all the time because they're both constantly frazzled about the demands of child-rearing. Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig play another couple. Their marriage buckles because of the strains placed on it by his womanizing.

Not surprisingly, the married couples think that Westfeldt’s Julie and Scott’s Jason have lost their minds. They think it's a mistake to have kids without a formal relationship, but at least in the beginning, Julie and Jason seem to have made a wise choice. They're super-tolerant of each other’s dating lives, and they split the demanding chores of caring for an infant.

Westfeldt (co-writer and star of Kissing Jessica Stein) keeps the tone reasonably light, as she examines the dating lives of Julie and Jason. A beefy looking Ed Burns shows up as a a possible beau for Julie; he’s a generally nice guy who’s divorced and has kids of his own. Jason falls for a sexy dancer (Megan Fox) who’s very clear about having no interest in a traditional relationship or in having kids.

About three-quarters of the way through, Westfeldt shifts the movie's tone. At a dinner on a Vermont ski trip the friends take together, Ham’s character has too much to drink and launches into a sneering tirade about Julie and Jason, predicting that their arrangement ultimately will crumble.

True to form, it does, and the movie stops being a trendy look at contemporary lives and love, and becomes a traditional rom-com that poses a distressingly predictable question: Will Julie and Jason become a couple?

I watched Friends With Kids without being bored or totally put off, but things never really deepen in ways that feel emotionally right.

One footnote: I won't give anything away, but the last line of the movie is needlessly coarse, a turn-off just at the moment when Friends With Kids could have used a little glow.

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