I’m not discussing ladies’ business with you.
—Oscar (Romany Malco)
Everywhere she goes in Philadelphia, Kate (Tina Fey) sees babies: in the coffee shop, at her yoga studio, on the sidewalk. Thirty-seven years old, the recently promoted vice president of development at an organics food super-chain is increasingly obsessed with babies—looking at them, mostly, though she says she wants to have one. As she puts it to a wide-eyed first date at the start of Baby Mama, she’s decided that now’s the time.
As the date scrambles out of the restaurant and hails a cab, Kate ponders her dwindling options. During the next few minutes of set-up, she learns her t-shaped uterus won’t allow her to conceive, that adoption takes five years (apparently even for rich white women who live in buildings with doormen), and that surrogacy costs $100,000. Stunned at this bit of news, she awkwardly jokes to her baby broker, Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver), “It costs more to have someone born than to have someone killed.” Chaffee doesn’t miss a beat: “That’s because it takes longer.”
Though she squirms on learning that Chaffee is as fertile as she is smarmy, Kate decides that surrogacy is the path for her, whereupon she’s interviewed by Angie (Amy Poehler), wildly white-trashy and fertile, and apparently considering offers by some five other possible clients. Angie brings along her common law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard), crass and muscle-car-loving like most country stereotypes (he lets drop that he’s agreed to let his precious love go through this process in order to help someone in need, and oh yes, if she has to sleep with someone else, it’ll cost extra). But while Carl more or less wallows in his own movie, Kate and Angie have a different sort of moment as they discuss the deal. “Decision made,” announces Angie after a frown that indicates she’s thinking hard, “I want our baby inside me.” The agreement is then coded as grand, cross-class romance, with pretty backlighting and sweeping score and hand-holding.
Here the premise for Michael McCullers’ directorial debut is revealed for what it is, a crude way to enter into a buddy movie with the longtime Weekend Updaters. The fact that it’s a buddy movie starring girls and concerned with ostensibly girly things is no small triumph. But the cheap gaggy formula, following the broad-comedic outlines of recent boys-growing-up comedies starring Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller, is immediately tedious. Kate’s the uptight good girl who envies her sister-with-children (Maura Tierney) and really, in the end, just needs to loosen up. Her excessive work ethic is sketched in brief moments as she’s assigned to oversee the design and construction of a new store by her new-agey cartoon of a boss, Barry (Steve Martin with a ponytail, which is just about the extent of his characterization): Kate finds a location, Kate cocks her head, Kate brings in a crew, Kate and Barry break ceremonial ground, etc.
At the same time, Angie is the bad girl, moving into Kate’s apartment when she breaks up with Carl, then proceeding to wreak mild havoc. She sticks her chewed gum under Kate’s expensive coffee table, “reads people’s auras,” snarfs down her regular diet of TastyKakes and Red Bull (“I would rather be shot in the face than eat this food,” she says of Kate’s organic pea soup), sings along loudly to “She Bangs” on the American Idol video game. Though Carl reappears occasionally (mostly to indicate the depths of Angie’s previous depravity and ensure that her new coupledom with Kate is relatively better), the film focuses primarily on the girls working out their differences.
Or not. The basic difference here is less behavioral than class-based. Both women are conventionally insecure, both are inclined to resist authorities (the easiest target here being the clueless and unfunnily lisping birthing instructor [Siobhan Fallon Hogan]), and both are rather thrilled to dress up and “go clubbing” (Angie’s adjustments of Kate’s costume—to a big-haired, pointy-heeled hookerish look—leads directly to Kate’s sloppy-drunkenness and solicitation of a fellow she’s been trying not to date. This would be Rob (Greg Kinnear), as blandly nice-guyish as can be, in place here to demonstrate Kate’s heterosexual interests, per buddy formula.
The need to demonstrate such interests is hardly pressing, even though the film keeps threatening to explore the gendered dynamics of the surrogacy contract. Mostly it’s left to the observant doorman Oscar (Romany Malco) to articulate the problem for the seemingly willfully blind Kate. When he calls out the film’s title as a way to describe the contract, Kate rejects it outright. “You pay the bills, she has the baby. That’s a baby mama,” he asserts, “Ask any black man in Philadelphia.” As Oscar comes to play confidant for both Kate and Angie, separately, his position as smartest man in the room is assured (granted, the competition is weak).
If he’s not precisely magical, Oscar does function as wise advisor for white women who should know better. While the role is familiar, it’s also remarkably unsatisfying. As you might guess, in the lessons learned portion of our program, when Angie and Kate’s shifts in self-understanding lead them to happiness, Oscar’s still tending the door.