‘Friends with Kids’ Can’t Commit to its Own Cynicism

“You always want to find some way to stay above the fray… have your cake and eat it too,” Ben (Jon Hamm) says angrily to Jason (Adam Scott) at a New Year’s Eve dinner table. This is Ben at his most jerkish; he’s interrupted a nice, relaxing evening with friends attempting to undermine the seemingly perfect “arrangement” Jason and his best friend Julie (director/producer/actor Jennifer Westfeldt) have concocted for themselves. The couple, who swear that they aren’t attracted to each other, decided early on to have a kid without marriage or a long-term relationship to avoid the pratfalls associated with either one.

This works so well for awhile that they manage to raise their son Joe (they had to keep the alliteration going) while each having their own significant other. But Ben, stuck in a loveless marriage that’s never quite explained, won’t have it. In the words of Leslie (Maya Rudolph), their success is an insult to his “way of life”.

This anger is supposed to be a weak moment for Ben. Taken as a meta-criticism of Friends with Kids, however, he’s dead-on. The linchpin of this movie’s premise is its unconventional take on raising children and falling in love; but at its conclusion, it devolves straight into rom-com tropes that entirely undermine whatever uniqueness the story had in the first place. You can’t help but roll your eyes as Jason rebuts Ben’s angry diatribe with an impassioned When Harry Met Sally speech describing all the ways he knows and loves Julie.

The snarky, different-woman-every night Jason from the start of the movie has lost his edge, ironically enough for the same reason the movie argues couples drive apart: having a child. In trying to be a fresh take on romance and a traditional love story, Friends with Kids ends up failing on both counts.

Though the end contradicts the majority of the film, there’s an understandable reason why Westfeldt might have chosen to write it that way. This is a deeply cynical take on parenting; though this is about “friends with kids”, there’s very little meaningful examination of the latter. The children here are either props to show how successful their parents are or arbiters of destruction that take any thrill out of marriage. Child-rearing isn’t easy, as everyone here correctly identifies, but there’s a noticeable line between recognizing hardship and demonization.

This becomes a problem in terms of character development when Ben and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Leslie and Alex (Chris O’Dowd, contributing to the Bridesmaids reunion that is half this cast) a lot of the time serve only the purpose of showing the effects of having a kid on a marriage, which in this context is only ever horrible. The horrifically photoshopped DVD case makes this point at a very obvious level; a lot of the time, they don’t feel like a real married couple, especially Ben and Missy.

Leslie and Alex escape this somewhat by becoming the most honorable example of people in love out of their group of friends. Their union has its problems, but they have an authenticity that everyone else here desperately needed. Before giving birth, they swear “nothing’s going to change” to their friends over a fancy, $100 a plate dinner, but, of course, things do. When the two other couples finally visit them at their apartment, their son has taken quite the toll on them. They feud and bicker, unable to clean things up without having a row.

Things seem rough, but Leslie has some wisdom that’s overlooked by nearly all the characters. While her husband “totally gets” Jason and Julie’s arrangement, she pinpoints the smug philosophy underlying the impetus for their commitophobia. Marriage, she notes, is about commitment and making sacrifices. As glib as that statement may appear, it’s an overwhelming breath of fresh air in a sea of narcissism. Jason and Julie don’t want to be together because it’s difficult, but they’re willing to have a child, which for some insane reason will lead to no bad consequences as long as there are no romantic feelings involved. This makes no sense. Thus, it’s easy to see why the ending is so typical; were Westfeldt to commit to the cynicism of the premise, it’s not clear the ending would have been any better.

The only advantage would have been that the characters would remain true to themselves. The script has a lot of witty, insightful banter, between Jason and Julie especially. Jason, portrayed as a textbook New York liberal atheist (the opening shot is his phone ringing atop a bedside copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; he breaks up with one of his girlfriends because “she voted for Bush in ’04”), is appropriately sarcastic, and of course a dynamo flirt.

Julie, the perfect counterweight, is quirky and funny; one of her favorite pastimes is asking Jason how he would prefer to die given two tragic options. These moments are where the story is at its strongest; Leslie, again providing true wisdom, points out that unconventional parents can do quite well. Friends with Kids could have taken a bold stance on the nature of friendship between men and women. It could have taken a risk in saying, “You know, maybe men and women aren’t inherently programmed to want to have sex with each other.”

This is certainly how a decent chunk of the opening fourth of the film goes; when Julie and Jason get around to conceiving, their foreplay is so awkward and business-like that their status as merely Platonic is actually believable. In these moments the movie works as a unique romantic comedy. Unfortunately, it’s not long before the stereotypes begin to take over. This is most evident in the gender roles; Julie, the woman, is emotionally conflicted over the playboy Jason, who gets along just fine looking for the “hot girls with big tits” he so loves.

Naturally, this means he ends up falling for a woman played by Megan Fox, who though typecast physically actually plays something of a mature person. Why her character remains with Jason, who has a kid, even after she makes it blatantly clear that she’ll never want to have one is never clarified, but she does play an important role in revealing Jason’s flaws.

Friends with Kids had the possibility of being something truly unconventional, but in the end it got scared of its own caustic outlook on love and commitment. The poster for this movie has a checklist that reads: “Love. Happiness. Kids. Pick Two.” By the end, Jason and Julie are allowed to check off all three as they get into bed together. This final scene is supposed to be the grand romantic moment, but all Jason can be is his true self, which is to say not romantic at all. “I want to fuck the shit out of you,” he says, being sincere as possible. The credits begin to roll as he climbs on top of her, indicating things will get better, but if he’s anything like himself the outcome is likely to be just as cynical as the beginning of the movie was.

Included with the DVD is a making-of featurette, some mildly humorous ad-libs and bloopers, deleted scenes, and video commentary. In light of the paltry amount of special features included in DVDs recently (a lot of the time these are reserved for Blu-Ray releases to incentivize buyers to fork out the extra five bucks), this is refreshing. They don’t provide any extra insight, but they’re at least entertaining.

RATING 4 / 10