A FEW years ago it would have been inconceivable that a starry independent film about the complicated nature of modern coupledom would feel more contrived, conservative and cliché-ridden than a mainstream studio effort.
Compare Friends With Kids to last year’s Bridesmaids, however, and it’s clear that this is no longer the case. Sharing several prominent cast members (Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd), both comedies use friends settling down as a jumping off point for exploring the impact of this on thirtysomething protagonists not yet ready or able to do the same. But where the raucous Bridesmaids had a loose, easy-going energy that ensured the humour seemed to emerge organically from the characters, the lower-budgeted Friends with Kids feels much more forced and clunky, dropping overwritten, faux-edgy one-liners into the mix in a try-hard effort to cover up how predictable and mechanical it really is.
As the title indicates, childbirth (as opposed to marriage) is the life-changing event its protagonists are starting to confront head-on, in particular the romance-strangling effect the presence of kids can have on a relationship.
That, at least, is the way best friends Julie (played by the film’s writer/director Jennifer Westfedt) and Jason (Adam Scott) see it. Successful, single, Manhattan-based professionals, they’ve grown increasingly horrified by the way the lives of their once vibrant New York pals – hot-to-trot couple Missy and Ben (Wiig and Westfeldt’s real-life partner Hamm) and fun-lovers Lesley and Alex (Rudolph and O’Dowd) – have started to revolve around nothing but stressed-out chat about sleep deprivation and nappy changing.
It’s not that Julie and Jason are against the idea of having kids, per se; they’re just against the idea of having to sacrifice all the good stuff about falling in love with someone once a kid comes along. Which is why, with Julie’s biological clock ticking, they make a deal to have a child together – resolving to share the parenting load while continuing to search for the love of their respective lives. Like friends with family benefits.
This misguided utopian ideal is, of course, doomed to failure from the start. Although Julie and Jason swear blind they’re not attracted to each other, once sex comes into play – even functional, unsatisfying, one-off sex – rom-com convention dictates that deeper feelings will rise to the surface to complicate things. And so it proves. No sooner have they had a baby boy and seem to be proving to their sceptical friends that they can have their cake and eat it, than jealousy starts to rear its ugly head: first when serial womaniser Jason falls hard for Mary Jane, a young, lithe Broadway dancer played by Megan Fox (remember her?); then when Julie hits it off with Kurt (Edward Burns), an equally idealised, hunky, great-with-kids single dad.
What dooms the film, though, is not the aching predictability of Julie and Jason’s can-they-really- remain-friends? dynamic (after all, When Harry Met Sally traversed similar territory with brilliant results); it’s the fact that the film revolves around such monstrously narcissistic protagonists. There’s almost nothing likeable about the neurotic Julie or the smug Jason that makes you want to root for them. They’re shrill, annoying, staggeringly dull and much less interesting as characters than their friends. The last of these problems may simply be down to the fact that Hamm, Wiig, Rudolph and O’Dowd are much more appealing performers than Westfeldt and Scott, but the few moments when the film manages to come alive tend to be scenes involving them rather than the stars.
It doesn’t help that as a writer and director Westfeldt (who wrote and starred in Kissing Jessica Stein a few years back) studiously avoids questioning whether Julie and Jason’s approach to parenting might be at all confusing for the kid they end up having – or at least, she avoids it until she needs a sappy way to ram it home to the characters how right they might be for each other. Indeed Jason and Julie’s rather blasé approach to parenthood is symptomatic of a film that wants to be provocative but soon loses its nerve and bottles out of saying anything especially interesting about balancing family and romance. Though it dares to suggest there may be more than one way for a loving couple to raise a kid, it quickly backtracks to reaffirm that the traditional way really is the best; it’s just that some people take longer to find that out than others. Which is a fairly retrograde and safe notion for a romcom that has designs on shaking up the genre a bit. But then, this isn’t really any edgier than an episode of Friends. Perhaps if Westfeldt’s sitcom model had been Modern Family she might have succeeded in creating something genuinely contemporary. And funny.
Friends with Kids (15)
Directed by: Jennifer Westfeldt
Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig