On the face of it, it sounds like one of those typically idiotic rom-com premises: two late-thirtysomething best friends, a man and a woman, decide to have a child together without all the messy complications that come with romantic couplehood. What distinguishes Jennifer Westfeldt's entertaining Friends With Kids is that the actors are so personable and the script so effective there are moments when they make the whole crack-brained scheme seem almost plausible.
Actress-writer Westfeldt established her unorthodox approach to the genre with the wry attempted lesbian romance Kissing Jessica Stein a decade ago. For Friends With Kids, she also steps behind the camera to direct for the first time, and the results are impressive. It's helpful that she surrounds herself with an ensemble of real-life friends and colleagues who resonate as longtime friends onscreen. And it's a big plus for local audiences that Westfeldt's co-star is Santa Cruz native Adam Scott in a smart, funny, and tender crowd-pleasing performance.
Fast-track New Yorkers Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Scott) have been platonic best buds forever. Living on separate floors in the same apartment building, they like to call each other up in the middle of the night to trade quips and crack wise about each other's respective bedmates. Julie is still hoping to find the right guy someday, while Jason's preference for hot babes renders his many relationships understandably brief; he gets bored as soon as the initial thrill of conquest wears off.
In the meantime, they hang with a tight-knit group that includes two other married couples. Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd) are earthy and affable; Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) are so impassioned, they can't keep their paws off each other in public. But everything changes when their friends start producing offspring; stress makes them drink too much, snipe at each other, and turn "mean and angry." With her own biological clock ticking away, Julie really wants a child, but she dreads what she sees as the inevitable toll it's taken on her friends' romantic relationships.
Jason is being flippant when he suggests he and Julie make a baby of their own. ("Get to it, pop one out, lose the weight quickly, and start looking for your guy," he advises.) But the more they think about it, the better they like the idea. Their friends think they're nuts, of course, but despite the comic clumsiness of their attempt to "do the drunk sex thing" together, they manage to produce an adorable boy, Joe, on whom they both dote, sharing parenting and caregiving chores exactly 50-50, while freeing each other to go out and pursue their own love lives. It looks like the whole thing might actually work out—until Julie and Jason meet the man (Edward Burns) and woman (Megan Fox) of their respective dreams, and confront unresolved issues in their feelings for each other.
What separates this film from the average, underdeveloped romantic comedy is the quick-witted camaraderie and the deep level of affection that Westfeldt and Scott share onscreen. They behave like the old friends they are, with a genuine bond that keeps the story on track, even when their characters' romantic timing is off. (Jason exults that they have "none of that sex stuff to cloud the experience" of raising Joe just when Julie is starting to warm to him as a potential life partner.)
But the rest of the ensemble is just as good. Hamm (Westfeldt's real-life life partner), looking a lot more boyish, but ultimately just as disillusioned as Don Draper, gets to deliver a scathing dinner table speech about sex, marriage, and irresponsibility. Rudolph and O'Dowd are both terrific as a pair of likeable mensches who manage to weather occasional bouts of mutual nastiness. (Only Wiig seems somewhat underused as a character who never makes much of an impact.)
Friends With Kids is scatological and breezily vulgar at times (although a couple of baby-poop jokes are actually funny), and we pretty much know where this story is going from scene one. But we're able to enjoy the ride, thanks to the engaging cast and the compassionate good humor of Westfeldt's storytelling voice.
FRIENDS WITH KIDS
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Adam Scott, Jennifer Westfeldt, Maya Rudolph, Chris O'Dowd, and Jon Hamm. Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt. A Roadside Attractions release.
Rated R. 100 minutes.
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