An indie romantic comedy by any other name is still a romantic comedy.
Every few years, two (or more) Hollywood studios find a premise so potentially promising financially that they’ll essentially make the same film. Last year, Hollywood studios released two films with the same platonic-friends-decide-to-have-sex premise, No Strings Attached and Friends With Kids. Modest success, at best, followed.
Taking the premise one step further, writer-director-actress Jennifer Westfeldt’s latest film, Friends With Kids posits platonic Manhattanites and long-time best friends, who decide, contrary to convention and common sense, to have a child together without getting married or otherwise turning their platonic relationship into a romantic one. That their plan falters on the shores of romantic desire isn’t a spoiler, let alone a surprise given the sitcom-like premise or the talent involved behind and in front of the camera, including multiple cast members from last year’s commercial and critical hit, Bridesmaids.
Both nearing 40, Jason Fryman (Adam Scott) and Julie Keller (Westfeldt) seem to have it all, but, despite material comforts and good friend, neither has found Ms. or Mr. Right. He’s in advertising and into casual hookups and short-term flings. She works for a non-profit of some sort or another and desperately wants to settle down. Both live in rent-controlled apartments only floors apart in the same building. The physical proximity allows them to maintain a close, undemanding, if platonic relationship. Julie is not above calling Jason in the middle of the night with an oddball question. Jason is not above answering Julie’s call in the middle of the night even when he has a female guest sleeping in the bed next to him. Their mutual friends, Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), are married. Ben and Missy already have kids; Leslie and Alex are expecting their first.
After seeing what having kids has done to Leslie and Alex’s (non-existent) romantic relationship, they hit on the aforementioned brilliant idea: Skip the marriage and go straight to parenthood, no romantic strings attached. Have the kid; raise the kid; and keep dating options open just in case Mr. or Ms. Right appears. It’s not that easy. It never is. If it were, Friends with Kids’ running time would decrease by 40 minutes or more and run not nearly two hours. Their “friends with kids,” to quote the title, also have their doubts about Jason and Julie’s peculiar arrangement, but their respective parents seem accepting if nothing else (because all parents want to be grandparents, regardless of the circumstances).
Before we get to the expected, hoped-for (by some) denouement, Westfeldt-the-writer throws in the obligatory complications in the form of a possible Mr. Right, Kurt (Edward Burns), a divorced, successful contractor, for Julie, and a possible Ms. Right (Now), Mary Jane (Megan Fox), a Broadway, for Jason. Unsurprisingly, neither Kurt nor Mary Jane is a good fit for their respective partners. Again, if they were, we’d be seeing an entirely different film. Kurt’s bland and dull; Mary Jane’s selfish and egocentric. That’s as much detail as anyone needs to know to figure out where, ultimately, [i]Friends with Kids[/i] will end up (i.e., reaffirming conventional, monogamous relationships, the more married, the better).
Obviously aware of the limitations inherent, if not in the premise, then in the outcome, Westfeldt-the-writer peppers character interactions with the occasional raunchy comment or aside and, in one seriously misjudged scene, slips in a gag involving explosive diarrhea, presumably because every comedy involving infants and child-rearing require one as part of the unspoken contract between comedy writers and contemporary audiences. When the mild profanity and gags don’t work or in short supply, Westfeldt leans heavily on her cast, almost all with comedy backgrounds, to carry Friends with Kids to the next scene (and the scene after that). It almost works, at least until the sitcom-level complications pile up and we’re left with an improbable, pre-credits scene dependent on profanity to express one character’s newfound romantic longing for the other.
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