FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012, Jennifer Westfeldt): 8/10
The new rom-com FRIENDS WITH KIDS is so much more notable for what it isn’t than for what it is. In the first part of this new decade, male-dominated Hollywood has managed to make room for women-scripted comedies that refused to play the phony Ephron/Meyers game of manufactured, condescending emotion — and instead take a post-modern view of life as a single, urban female in 21st century USA. Lena Dunham’s GIRLS is a successful and critically acclaimed series that, despite its flaws, is endearing and watchable because of the talent in front of and behind the camera, not necessarily because of likable leads. Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumalo’s BRIDESMAIDS script reminded misogynists that women could be funny too. And Liz Meriwether’s sitcom NEW GIRL thrives off a great ensemble and a courageousness to be an equal opportunity deprecator.
So what is FRIENDS WITH KIDS? It manages to carve out an even different niche than the aforementioned projects — it’s doing something closer to what Woody Allen accomplished with ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN (though I’m not comparing the quality; those films are masterpieces) and more recently Noah Baumbach with THE SQUID AND THE WHALE. What it’s not doing is getting mired in a self-absorbed, superficial, do-nobody-any-favors piece of misanthropy like Mindy Kaling’s rancid new show THE MINDY PROJECT (a horrid act of rom-com abasement that manages to stumble as much from incompetency as from repulsive characters and insipid writing). No, Westfeldt is doing something new — presenting a unique, individual world view from an intelligent, measured perspective and refusing to cater to expectations regardless of how closely it hews to genre conventions.
Is John Hamm’s Ben an asshole? Yes, but rather than be one-dimensional, he has humanizing moments — like his on-the-same-page private reaction in the kitchen with Wiig, and his apology at the bar to Adam Scott. Is Westfeldt neurotic and emotional? Perhaps, but not because Women Are Neurotic and Emotional; it’s because she’s put in situations that justify those reactions, and so is Scott’s Jason character. Is Megan Fox’s MJ a vacuous hottie? Hottie yes, but not one-dimensionally vacuous — she’s a real person who may behave younger and more superficially than suits Jason, but is relatable and never a pawn in the story. (And man, the fact that Fox can act must really piss off people who resent gorgeous women and rely on the assumption that they’re untalented).
The film’s premise (two lifelong platonic best friends have a baby together to avoid having to get married and then divorce the other parent) is only slightly far-fetched in today’s world, and maybe its view of parenting is overly simplistic. But this isn’t a film about parenting (the title is a linguistic joke with a double meaning) — it’s a film about connections, and what we value in a significant other. It’s not about finding someone sleepless in Seattle that you fall in love with, it’s about the years after Hoffman and Ross get off that bus at the end of THE GRADUATE. From its bitter rants to to its sweeping expressions of love, the film is loaded with achingly specific details all serving to present an accurate, identifiable vision of modern urban life.
I can’t end without praising the cast here. Adam Scott has shown his comic chops for years but here he’s asked to carry some pretty dramatic moments and rises to the challenge. His Jason is also one of the few recent rom-com guys I’ve identified with so closely that it scares me a bit. Hamm, Maya Rudolph, Wiig, and Chris O’Dowd are excellent, believable, and well-rounded supporting players. And then there’s the writer/director herself: Westfeldt gives herself a very difficult role and calibrates it perfectly. She’s sympathetic and likable without being perfect, witty without being smug, and warm without being cheesy. The film stumbles a bit in the second half trying to navigate of few of its more forced plot points, but overall this is a pleasant surprise and sure to be an underrated entry in this genre.