Friends With Kids
Director : Jennifer Westfeldt
Screenplay : Jennifer Westfeldt
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Adam Scott (Jason Fryman), Jennifer Westfeldt (Julie Keller), Jon Hamm (Ben), Kristen Wiig (Missy), Maya Rudolph (Leslie), Chris O’Dowd (Alex), Megan Fox (Mary Jane), Edward Burns (Kurt), Lee Bryant (Elaine Keller), Kelly Bishop (Marcy Fryman), Cotter Smith (Phil Fryman)
Have you ever wondered what a remake of When Harry Met Sally … (1989) populated almost entirely with unlikeable characters would look like? Neither have I, but that seems to be what writer/director/star Jennifer Westfeldt was going for in Friends With Kids, a romantic dramedy that is heavy on miserable navel-gazing and stale sitcom antics punched up with R-rated dialogue and studiously lacking in general human insight or empathy. It is hard to know what element of the film is more grating: Westfeldt’s insular Big Apple view of the world that makes Woody Allen and Sex and the City seems downright provincial or the manner in which she dresses up the film’s all-too-familiar rom-com material with a veneer of sociological seriousness that is blatantly discarded in the film’s final five minutes. Westfeldt previously co-wrote and starred in Kissing Jessica Stein (2001), a charming, thoughtful comedy about a single girl who decides to try lesbianism because she’s so disillusioned by her experiences dating men, but any goodwill from that film is quickly squandered.
As the title suggests, Friends With Kids centers on a group of friends in New York whose core dynamic is forever altered when some of them begin having children. Aversive to both marriage and childrearing are Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt), platonic best friends since college who know each other better than anyone else (at one point Jason describes Julie as one of his appendages and she describes him as being like her brother). But, even though neither of them seems interested in settling down despite constantly talk about looking for “the one,” they decide to buck tradition (and, really, common sense) and have a child together with the idea that they will split all duties and costs of child-raising 50/50 and still maintain their swingin’ cool single lifestyles.
The plan is viewed with understandable skepticism by Jason and Julie’s married friends, Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph), although the way Westfeldt frames the situation, it is not so much that they doubt the plan’s feasibility as they are envious of it. Although we first meet the couples in a state of chic urban bliss at a $100-a-plate upscale Manhattan restaurant where Alex and Leslie first announce that they are expecting, the film quickly confirms that having children turns you into a miserable wretch prone to either screaming at your spouse who simply acts bewildered that his lack of effort might engender anger (Leslie and Alex’s approach) or jabbing your spouse with passive-aggressive barbs that eventually lead to stunning levels of animosity and hatred (Leslie and Ben’s approach). While there may be some truth to these scenarios, Westfeldt presents marriage hell as the only logical outcome, which leaves no room for subtlety or complexity (and also wastes a lot of talent, particularly Kristen Wiig, who spends her limited screen time either quietly livid or crying). As both a writer and director, she works in big, broad, loud strokes that ask us to take all or nothing (perhaps because several members of the Bridesmaids cast are on screen, she tries to punch up the vulgar comedy, but she doesn’t have the dirty-funny gift; it all sounds forced and uncomfortable).
While Jason and Julie’s plan works like gangbusters at first, problems start arising. After Jason meets and is immediately smitten by Mary Jane (Megan Fox), a sultry Broadway dancer who is even more shallow and self-centered than he is, green begins to creep into Julie’s view of their “perfect arrangement.” She later meets Kurt (Edward Burns), a recent divorcee and devoted dad who is everything Jason is not: kind, courteous, sympathetic, thoughtful. Basically, he’s a fundamentally decent guy, which in the parlance of movies like Friends With Kids means he’s a dullard and exists only to prove to Julie that Jason is her true soul mate, even though he has done little but demonstrate to her that he is impenetrably shallow and selfish (Scott, a star on Parks and Recreation, has a distinct charm, but Westfeldt misuses him terrible by amping up his character’s loathrio attributes to the point that Julie’s love for him makes no sense whatsoever). Having a child together both brings them closer than ever while also driving them apart, as they realize that raising and caring for another human being is not something that is easily done in the spaces between working and bar-hopping. Will they end up together? Of course, although I have to say that, with the exception of Rob Reiner’s awful The Story of Us (2001), I can’t remember the last time I watched a romance in which I studiously wished that the two leads would go their separate ways.
At its core, Friends With Kids is an exceedingly conventional story that ultimately upholds monogamous love and traditional family structures, although Westfeldt resists convention and tradition at every turn, trying with all her might to ensure that the film is socially and romantically “edgy” by ridiculing anything that might smack of old-fashioned, middle American morality and dowsing us with the characters’ unquestioned narcissism. As if the film weren’t sodden enough already, she also insists on punctuating it from time to time with unnecessary political jabs, particularly those aimed at organized religion. The lack of subtlety begins with the film’s first shot: a close-up of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion sitting on the bedside table next to Jason—pretty heavy reading for a character who demonstrates no real interest in philosophy, politics, science, or anything even remotely intellectual at any other point in the film. From there the movie quickly sinks under the weight of Westfeldt’s desire to prove the authenticity of her East Coast progressive credentials, which makes it so perplexing that she ends the film on a conventional happy ending that, according to the previous 100 minutes, is the first step toward living hell.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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