'Friends With Kids' Rears Some Laughs
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A lot of people go to the movies with the desire to see characters like themselves, or at least characters they can relate to, up on the screen. I have never been one of those people. When I was a kid, I watched movies for the specific reason of getting as far away as possible from the reality I inhabited and the people in it. This is one reason that I came to admire Mario Bava's films so much. I bring this up by way of admitting a certain cinematic blind spot. Although I am now an adult of a certain (and ever-advancing) age, there's still a part of me that gets antsy when confronted on-screen by characters that I am even potentially expected to have an affinity to. The protagonists of "Friends With Kids," an ensemble comedy written and directed by and co-starring Jennifer Westfeldt, are all well-compensated urban professionals of a certain age having romantic adventures in New York, and more than a couple of them work in media. They are, or were, my people. Theoretically. And 10 minutes into it, as a couple of them bat about the lines "I hate Brooklyn," "Brooklyn is the new Manhattan," "Manhattan is the new Manhattan," I was seized by a definite desire to saw one of my hands off.
This is not my verdict on the movie, which does in fact perk up and get pretty -- if not entirely -- good. I'm merely trying to be up-front about a prejudice here. Your mileage may vary, as they say. Anyway, the reason two of the characters, the ones played by Westfeldt and Adam Scott, are having this conversation in the first place, is because they're heading out to the County of Kings to visit their pals, two other couples who've moved out there because they need room to raise their children. These couples, played by Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, are some hot messes, and Scott and Westfeldt's Jason and Julie, who are the best-friends-who-never-hooked-up component of this sextet, are kind of awestruck at how bitter and cranky child rearing has made their once lusty and fun-loving pals. They're doing it wrong, the two conclude. What would doing it right subsist of, they wonder. Having a kid with each other, platonically, they conclude.
It's an absurd idea on the face of it, as everyone around them understands. But it's also a reasonably good premise for a postmodern screwball comedy, and Westfeldt and her excellent cast get a good amount of mileage out of it even as the film shamelessly resorts to the explicit poop gags that pretty much every film featuring babies (except, of course, "Babies") has nowadays. The couple's arrangement goes so swimmingly that it elicits the teeth-grinding envy of their miserable-in-marriage pals. But then comes the trickier part, in which they hold to the part of their agreement that they can get on with their dating lives while parenting. Enter child-hating Broadway chorine M.J. (what, a "Spider-Man" reference?), played, with surprising likeability, by Megan Fox, and wise, earnest divorced hunk Kurt (Edward Burns). Things get complicated, and of course we've known from before the beginning where this is going to end up, so ...
Oddly, though, before making way for the inevitable, the film takes a tonal detour, veering from indie-inflected city comedy with Woody Allen undertones (Westfeldt's demeanor and timing here sometimes put one in mind of Diane Keaton in the '70s) to something reminiscent of the work of Nicole Holofcener ("Please Give"). A drunken New Year's Eve dinner at a ski house is the scene for all manner of unpleasant revelation put forth by the assembled pals, and the repercussions of those revelations play out badly for many involved. Jason's insensitivity, of course, causes a bad rift with Julie, who moves with their son to -- horrors! -- Brooklyn. It's in this section that Scott, who's always been able to make me laugh but who I never thought I'd be able to take terribly seriously in any context, earns MVP status. While his character is weirdly conceived on a bunch of levels (no guy that innately nice is also that innately clueless; nor does the physically unprepossessing actor really convince as a, you'll pardon the term, lady-killer), Scott sells the emotional core of the guy in a way that makes the film's conclusion seem not just inevitable but right.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs athttp://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.