Just like life, Maybe Baby starts with a shag. Sam (Hugh Laurie) and Lucy (Joely Richardson) are trying to have a baby. They’re an ultra-modern couple leading ultra-modern lives. He’s a top-shelf writer for the BBC and she’s a successful theatre agent. They live in a ritzy area of London in a hip flat with a hip dog. The only thing they don’t have is a (hip?) child. They can’t and the doctors don’t know why. Sam, frustrated at his writer’s block, decides, unbeknownst to his wife, to turn their story into that script he has been longing to write.
This is an intriguing premise and, coming from the man responsible for every funny line to come out of Britain not spoken by John Cleese, Maybe Baby inspired high expectations. Sadly, it features boring cliches and a positively awful leading lady, so that it’s rarely humorous or moving, and will likely only leave its audience reaching for old Young Ones tapes.
Writer-director Ben Elton is smart and funny, of that there is no doubt. The film’s sight gags are sometimes hilarious and the story is often engrossing. But the execution falls flat. Maybe Baby is littered with funny moments and genuine passion, most often featuring Hugh Laurie, the film’s real saviour. Laurie proved his dramatic skills in Kenneth Branagh’s Peter’s Friends, playing a man not entirely unlike Sam, whose wife is so concerned about the safety of her child that she phones the babysitter every seven minutes. As one of Elton’s funniest characters, Blackadder‘s Prince George, Laurie used his considerable timing skills to play off some of Britain’s comedic greats. But here, Richardson gives him nothing. Her lines sound rehearsed, leaving lengthy silences between what should be snappy bits of dialogue. Sometimes it feels as though the editors forgot to put in the laugh track.
Laurie does his damnedest to react to Richardson, but her boring and bossy Lucy makes it hard for us to understand why Sam is so devoted to her. Most of the time, he’s trying to figure her out, to understand, help, and support her. His going behind her back to write his screenplay truly tears at him, allowing us to see just how much he adores his wife. Yet, Lucy spends the majority of the film complaining about Sam and leering at another man, and her preoccupation with using her husband as a baby machine gets old very quickly. But while she uses her diary to bitch about their relationship, he uses his script to sort out his own thoughts and feelings while inadvertently realising just how much he is learning about her. He is a writer, after all.
Lucy is further estranged from the audience when, apparently bored with Sam, she falls for yoga-practising, Shakespeare-reciting, orphan-helping actor Carl Phipps (always referred to as such, rather like Bridget Jones‘s Mark Darcy), who arrives rather out of the blue at her agency. Carl Phipps (James Purefoy) is the sensitive yet macho male archetype, inspiring the women in Lucy’s office to tumble over themselves in their desire to bed him. Lucy is instantly smitten, and perves longingly at him (even getting down and dirty with him at one point), while telling herself, in a voice-over internal monologue, how much she loves Sam and how this slight indiscretion was a mistake that will never happen again. Pity was, for me, that this “indiscretion” killed any sympathy I may once have had for her. At first I thought perhaps that her flirtation had something to do with a need to reaffirm her attractiveness, or to have sex again for a reason other than just breeding. But then I realised that if I had someone at home who obviously cared for me as much as Sam does, the charm of Carl Phipps probably wouldn’t win me over as quickly as it does Lucy.
Perhaps what is supposed to endear us (women?) to Lucy is her desire to have a baby. The gaping hole in the film, however, is the question of why she is so eager to be pregnant. Somehow, her lingering in parks, watching other people’s children in the sandpits, just doesn’t explain it. Instead, this is just one of many cliches. Elton’s usually acute sense of what is funny seems lost in a mix of silly scenes, such as one where Lucy and a co-worker are in a gym, discussing her infertility (Sam and Lucy never talk about anything else with anyone). Carl Phipps comes in shirtless, causing Lucy to squeal and fall from her treadmill.
The film also features several cliched characters, but these are saved by solid performances. For instance, gynaecologist Dr. James is made completely likeable by the brief but memorable performance of Rowan Atkinson (his presence anywhere, for me, is a comfort). His scenes involve standard jokes about obstetrics that may amuse any woman who has been subjected to the stirrups, including students overseeing procedures, badly timed farts, and bizarre metal objects in the examination room. Another bit of relief comes in Ewan Proclaimer, a screenwriter played by Tom Hollander (Bedrooms and Hallways). Give the man odd facial hair and a few caustic lines (which he delivers with a Scottish accent), and he will inevitably be funny, especially when Elton is writing for him. Ewan is Elton’s means to upbraid contemporary British cinema: the character pitches a script to Sam about Scottish heroin addicts who engage in numerous deplorable acts before dying, as a representation of “kids today,” insisting the film will be “total comedy.” But Sam questions the point of making films supposedly mirroring European youth, so the actors can run off to work in America (Ewan’s own name refers to this phenomenon).
Elton’s apparent need to denigrate his fellow writers and filmmakers is bizarre, considering that his film almost entirely rips off John Hughes’ charming 1988 comedy, She’s Having A Baby. The similarities between Hughes’ film and Elton’s are too striking to be overlooked. Sam and Lucy’s discussions of his incompetent sperm and her doctors are much the same as conversations between Jake (Kevin Bacon) and Kristy (Elizabeth McGovern) in Hughes’ movie. Like Sam, Jake is increasingly frustrated that Kristy treats their sex life as a series of procreation sessions. And Jake also is frustrated with his job, feeling he is not reaching his potential as a writer. The main difference between these two couples is that Jake and Kristy are a dream to watch. Hughes doesn’t use paltry supporting characters, like Sam’s friend George (Adrian Lester) as sounding boards for his protagonists’s problems.
She’s Having A Baby and Maybe Baby differ in one other way. I grew up watching everything that both filmmakers committed to screen, and while I never expected something so intelligent, heartfelt, and funny to come from Hughes, I would have bet my life on nothing less from Elton.