What do you do if you want a kid but you don’t have a significant other (or indeed if you’re a gay man)? Well, if you’re a woman you could pop down the sperm bank, I suppose, but in the case of Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt), they decide perhaps they should have a kid together, despite not being in love. Now in their 30s, the duo are best of friends, but for various reasons haven’t settled down.
That’s not true of their friends, Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), who are married and on the baby train. Despite the fact both couples seem harassed and on the edge due to their children, Jason and Julie decide to go ahead anyway and have a child. Their mates are convinced it’ll be a disaster, but are shocked and a bit jealous when the baby arrives and Jason and Julie appear to have child-raising down pat. However, while they went into this convinced they were just friends, Julie starts to have feelings for Jason, but will her skirt-chasing baby-daddy feel the same way?
Initially Friends With Kids feels like it’s going to be something fresh and a bit different, eschewing the tradition rom-com tropes and charting its own potentially interesting course. It starts out with some interesting observations about modern relationships and does a great job of balancing its slightly indie sensibilities with some mainstream comedy. However things go rather downhill in the second half, when it heads for far more stereotypical territory. Indeed it’s a bit of a let-down as something fresh and original suddenly seems uncertain what direction to go in, and so takes the easy way out and starts to rely on easy jokes and standard rom-com plots.
Writer-director-star Jennifer Westfeldt got a lot of kudos for her writing debut, All The Real Girls, and so there’s been much interest in Friends With Kids, which marks her helming debut. However it seems a bit trapped between the indie spirit of her earlier movie and a desire to be commercial, never quite reconciling the two.
I also have the feeling that perhaps Westfeldt shouldn’t direct herself, as she’s proven an extremely good actress elsewhere, but seems a bit flattened and a tad annoying here. Adam Scott, a perennial supporting character in film and TV, is great as Justin, who thinks he can have it all, including a baby with his best friend and a relationship with a smoking hot dancer, played by Megan Fox. Indeed it’s only when Justin and Julie strike up romantic relationships with other people (hers with Ed Burns, his with Fox) that problems arise in their baby-raising plans.
Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm (who’s also Westfeldt’s real-life, long-term squeeze) and Chris O’Dowd also put in good work, but their characters quickly become a little frustrating. Their presence becomes a series of relatively hackneyed observations about married life, with little insight into the reasons behind it – if you go by the movie, if you’re married and have a kid, you’ll never have sex again and spend all your time shouting at one another (I’m sure some would agree with that, but the film offers little logic to it).
These rather standard observations would be okay if there wasn’t a vague whiff of misandry. I’m not saying that Westfeldt genuinely hates men, but her male characters have a shallow, blind selfishness – even the good ones – that suggest all guys are essentially stupid. You could say this is just redressing the way female characters of all types have been short-changed, objectified and categorised in film over the past century – but it did annoy me that the film seems to find endless excuses for female foibles, while men are sex-obsessed fools, who at any moment could burst into full-on cruelty. Yes, women in film generally are underwritten, but I don’t think the answer should be to flesh out the female characters while pithing to men.
It’s certainly not a dreadful film, but it’s a shame it can’t fulfil the promise of its first half hour and instead starts to state the obvious and fall into typical rom-com plots and attitudes. For me perhaps the most disappointing thing is that a movie that initially seemed to be about how rational beings can make decisions and actually have some measure of control over their life and happiness in the modern world, turns into yet another film about how we’re slaves to our emotions. Indeed, the message of the film could be said to be that having a child means you lose the ability for rational thought – I’m sure some parents would agree, but not to this extent.
Overall Verdict: A promising start descends into typical and not particularly convincing rom-com fireworks. Friends With Kids is an interesting premise which ends up having little to say about it.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac