An independent ensemble dramedy that’s as conventional as any studio product, Jennifer Westfeldt’s first directorial effort—her earlier scripts having been helmed by others—tries to blend sitcom cliches with emotional insights while adding a dollop of the raunchiness considered obligatory nowadays. (Instead of the projectile vomiting so commonplace in Hollywood comedies, we get projectile pooping instead—something that turns out to be infantile both literally and figuratively.) The result is a juggling act in which not a few balls go uncaught and the lead characters seem, as is so often the case, infuriatingly shallow and dense—and ultimately irritating—rather than likable.
The script focuses on six friends. Two couples—Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm)—are married. By contrast hard-working Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and womanizer Jason (Adam Scott) are defiantly single, though they’re long-time best buddies. After the sextet is introduced in what amounts to a prologue at a restaurant, the story springs forward to the point that the two married couples have had children—a fact that brings huge changes to their lives. Julie and Jason don’t want to fall into a similar trap, but believe they can in effect have the joy of parenthood without many of the drawbacks by having a child together and alternating the caregiver duties, remaining friends without giving up their freedom as singles.
It’s clear from the opening reel where this is going to end up—with Julie and Jason making the ultimate commitment to one another. But there have to be complications along the way. Each of them finds a different partner—she links up, at a friend’s encouragement, with Kurt (Edward Burns), an ultra-sensitive divorced man with kids of his own, and he with sexy dancer Mary Jane (Megan Fox), who doesn’t want kids of her own. Meanwhile Leslie and Alex act as a couple of comic observers to the romantic ballet, while melodrama comes into the picture in the deterioration of Missy and Ben’s marriage. The centerpiece is a dinner conversation during a joint vacation in Vermont, where Ben explodes at Jason’s laissez-faire attitude and Jason responds with a long, impassioned monologue that shows how completely devoted he is to Julie, even if he can’t admit it. And so the script continues to throw obstacles in the way of their coming together until Jason, driving away from Julie’s place, abruptly turns his car around and rushes back while their adorable son, now able to talk, announces that he wants daddy to stay.
“Friends With Kids” isn’t the first picture made outside the studio system to fall into Hollywood cliché, of course, but its ambition to be sharper and more sophisticated than the norm proves no more than pretension. And in some ways it’s less attractive than many of its glossier models. For one thing, the leads have considerable limitations. Westfeldt is a pleasant enough presence, but she’s rather bland, like a more subdued version of Laura Linney. Scott is also problematic. His angular features and shark-like appearance are far better suited to the villainous parts he usually plays (or to the fellow the girl throws over for the handsome suitor), and as a romantic lead he comes up short. Rudolph and O’Dowd are likable as the Fred and Ethel of this half-sitcom, but Hamm and Wiig play their unhappy counterparts with such fierceness that it threatens to throw the whole film off kilter.
Technically there’s certainly nothing wrong here, but the compositions of cinematographer William Rexer II show no particular imagination, unfortunately proving all too close a match with Westfeldt’s pedestrian directorial approach. The result is a romantic comedy-drama that promises to be different but is, sadly, extremely familiar.