We critics love to bash the Romantic Comedy. As a genre, it’s more or less played out, constantly reduced to a current female flavor of the month (Katherine Heigl, Kristen Bell, Mila Kunis) paired with an impossibly good looking pseudo stud (Gerard Butler, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Golsing). The couples are then placed in a ridiculously high concept circumstance (she wants to be a bride, he’s struggling to drop his gigolo persona, it’s a special foreign ritual, etc.), mandated to blather some ridiculously half-baked Chic Flick Soup for the Soul dialogue, and pratfall around like Jerry Lewis off his meds. There’s no mystery, no chance at actual chemistry. Instead, the gears grind away, delivering said dung like farmers in need of more fertilizer.
As a result, those of us who have to sit through such drivel for a paycheck have grown tired of the stereotype. We can almost guess the plotline from whose in the lead and who his or her co-star is. Gone are the days when someone like Woody Allen could combine real emotion with equally adept insight to give us angst-ridden paramours with real problems. Indeed, in their place currently are a collection of cookie cutter clods who emit as much interest and Eros as a group of dead drones. Of course it’s not always the moviemakers fault. Like any good factory, they merely manufacture what the viewing public appears to crave. As with many lagging fortunes, the key is not to give into the bad, but champion and challenge with something good.
Enter Jennifer Westfeldt and her delightful Friends With Kids. An anomaly in an arena which caters to mediocrity, it’s a smart, successful riff on what is, as mentioned before, a trail of terrible titles. The narrative is a bit pat, and the character considerations equally contrite, but there is real heart and emotion here. It’s a triumph for an actress/writer/director who brought us the indie fave Kissing Jessica Stein. This time around, Ms. Westfeldt attacks that Tinseltown stalwart – the soothing salve of biology – as the crock of claptrap it is. Instead, she presents recognizable types set against identifiable situations. The results may not rewrite the RomCom rulebook, but when you manage to make the otherwise inert beauty Megan Fox feel like a full blown comedic actress, you know you’re onto something.
The main story centers on platonic pals Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt). Both are successful and surrounded by a group of concerned, compliant friends. Among them are couples Missy (Kristin Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm), and soon to be parents Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd). In fact, the upcoming birth causes everyone to sink into insular introspective mode. Leslie and Alex aren’t sure they’re ready to be parents, while Missy and Ben are burdened with an increasingly loveless marriage. For Jason and Julie, the answer seems simple – have a baby…but don’t get hitched. Agreeing that there will be no lingering relationship, he starts dating a sexy dancer (Megan Fox), while she takes up with a single father (Ed Burns). Of course, these new relationships only add to the confusion already present in their hearts, and when the wee one arrives…
If the definition of a Romantic Comedy is a narrative interlaced with moments of intelligent humor and tear jerking sentiment, Friends with Kids provides a plentiful amount of both. With a cast in solid sync with her grand, glad designs, Westfeldt finds the right balance between wit and wisdom. Yes, we still have to suffer through a few setpiece outrages (Scott, covered in feces, trying to defend his Daddy and diapering skills) and some of the plot machinations appear mandated to keep the overall experience from appearing too contrived, but for the most part, Westfeldt has made a minor masterwork. In fact, it’s so refreshing and fun that it acts like a meaningful mea culpa for all the dumbed down drek that has come before.
It all boils down to believability. Sure, these characters live urban lives that only the wealthiest members of the metropolitan set could realistically afford, but Westfeldt makes them so savvy and sincere that we don’t doubt their personal placement. Even better, there is real chemistry, her actors playing off each other in ways that remind you of other expert ensembles. In fact, Friends with Kids gets so many things 100% correct that it’s hard to find fault, though there is always some to be had. Oddly enough, the one person who seems the least linked to everything going on here is Westfeldt’s own real life partner, Jon Hamm. He’s playing stubbled and stupid here, and not necessarily in a good way. On the other hand, Burns blossoms in what is little more than the thankless hunk role. He’s there to give Julie a choice, even if it’s not very realistic.
Yes, Friends with Kids does give in to a tiny bit of cinematic inevitability toward the end. We sense that Jason and his brave BFF will cut through the confusion and discover their are really meant for each other, toddler or not. Similarly, any other problems facing our close knit group will either be solved, or settled as nothing more than companion collateral damage. For those who continuously pine away for the days when Manhattan and Annie Hall could argue both love and loss, complexity and comic inevitability, Friends with Kids is for you. It may not match a master like Mr. Allen in all departments, but when compared to the crap company it must keep, genre wise, it’s a gem.