[9 March 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You might brace yourself for trouble when Megan Fox is playing Mary Jane, the least confused and most rational character in a movie. Just so, in Friends with Kids, she’s the temporary partner for Jason (Adam Scott), the one in place to help him sort out his relationship with his proper partner. She’s a dancer too, apparently good enough at whatever sort of dancing she does that she has her own dressing room when the time comes for him to visit her at a New York event, so he can feel at once fortunate and out of place, and so question his interest in her even as he’s thrilled to be associated with a star of some sort, indeed, as Jason puts it, “A skinny flexible dancer with a big rack: what are the odds?”
Yes, Mary Jane serves to illustrate just how stunted Jason is. This means that she’s not, in herself, a primary problem in Friends With Kids. Rather, Jason is a problem, and so is his proper partner, Julie (writer-producer-director Jennifer Westfeldt). They begin the film as best friends, having known each other since they were kids and currently single in Manhattan, and calling each other late at night when they have other post-sex people in their beds. As is the mode in so many romantic comedies, he sleeps with pretty girls and drops them without quite remembering their names, and she’s looking for a romance, something that at least hints at Long Term.
This means she goes for weeks and even months without sex, a concept that worries not only Jason but also her friends, say, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Missy (Kristen Wiig). Their concern is set up in a kind of pre-scene, when Leslie and her husband, Alex (Chris O’Dowd), reveal that they’re pregnant. This even as they’re sitting in “a $100 a plate” restaurant, and Jason complains that someone across the room has “brought toddlers.” So now you know: Leslie and Ben are committed and Jason’s a jerk. You also know, from a lingering look at Julie, that she’s hoping some day she’ll be so lucky as to be so committed.
With the gendered desire gap between the best friends established, the movie cuts ahead to four years later. Leslie’s pregnant again and Missy too has a child, with her husband Ben (Jon Hamm). The three couples are assembled to celebrate Jason’s birthday, an event that Julie means to make special even if everyone else is too distracted by their kids. Tensions emerge, and soon enough, Jason and Julie are off on their own in a bar, discussing what they’ve just seen. Even if, as they both agree, they want a child, they don’t want the dreary difficulties of commitment to a partner. The more they talk about it, the more they come to believe a version of themselves that is plainly cooked up for the rom com formula: they can have a baby together, alternate responsibilities to it, and also maintain their separate identities and fictions of freedom. This even though Jason insists on calling Julie “doll,” an irritation that only becomes more pronounced as their lives together become more complicated.
Those lives involve a baby, treated here as the prop he sounds like. The movie goes on to walk you through the tedious faux obstacles en route to the end you can see coming, the end that even Mary Jane sees coming before Julie and Jason. They sort of have sex (“Let’s just pretend we’re really into each other”). They share the experience of the birth (“Your vagina looks like a jellyfish!”). They talk about Jason’s serial relationships (“Penelope’s over: she got needy and she voted for Bush… in 2004”). And then they have issues.
Unfortunately, these issues are exactly what you guess they’ll be. The predominant one is that sweet if neurotic Julie is in love with the not so charming lout Jason: apparently, his capacity to love his son is enough to make her forget his bad behavior in every other arena of daily life. Another is Kurt (Edward Burns), the utterly perfect partner for Julie, being kind and intelligent and clever, whom she can’t like because she’s stuck on this Jason thing.
This Jason thing doesn’t do him or Julie—or you—any favors. (Imagine how odd a romantic comedy would seem if the Jason thing didn’t exist?) And Mary Jane is this thing’s most visible sign. When she and Jason break up, it suggests that he’s finally grown up enough to be rewarded with his proper partnership—she ends up, here, being a sign of something else. She’s able to escape the pathology of this proper partnership, and you’re happy for her. That’s not to say that she’s not as formulaic as the partnership (she’s horrified by the baby’s explosive diarrhea, or, as Jason phrases it, again, so stupidly in front of Julie, “She’s cool and she’s smart and she doesn’t want kids”). It’s not to say that she’s not a plot device. It is to say that she gets out, and in doing that, she does seem very smart.