Friday, March 9, 2012

Friends with Kids: The best-laid plans...

Friends with Kids (2011) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: R, for pervasive profanity and sexual candor
By Derrick Bang

Most adult friendships face two crisis points.

Couples signing on for the long term — whether via the bond of marriage, or a less formal commitment — inevitably lose their single friends. All concerned may try to avoid this outcome, but the dynamic invariably fractures. The singletons don’t want to be third wheels; they’re also likely to feel lonely in the face of such love.

When longtime best friends Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt)
decide to have a baby together, they initially get hung up over how to handle
"the act" itself; after all, they're friends, not lovers. Finally, Julie hits the
perfect solution: "Let's just pretend that we're really into each other," she
suggests. Ah, but is it only pretense?
Then, too, I’ve always suspected that our (former) single friends, back in the day, decided that we just weren’t fun any more.

Okay, so couples make new friends, generally with other couples. The second rift occurs if all your new friends start having children ... but you choose not to take that path. Getting together —enjoying everybody’s company during a raucous night out — becomes impossible, in great part because new parents just can’t do that.

Fine, you think, then why not visit them at home? And yet — somehow — even that never seems to happen.

My suspicion, this time, is that the new parents now regard their childless friends with grim disapproval and jealousy, because they’re not suffering enough.

This is a rich dynamic, and one that writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt mines to excellent comic effect, in Friends with Kids. But while her first few acts are funny, snarky and hilariously vulgar — in the way we now must accept, post-Judd Apatow and Bridesmaids — Westfeldt’s film is far from frivolous. The core premise here comes with an unpleasant catch, and she doesn’t shy away from its consequences.

Although primarily an actress, Westfeldt pops up every so often with perceptive, sharp-edged scripts; she enjoys exploring relationships that involve unusual twists, and she remains well remembered for writing and starring in 2001’s charming Kissing Jessica Stein. Her sophomore writing effort, 2006’s Ira & Abby, wasn’t as successful; Friends with Kids — her third script, and her directorial debut — deserves to do much better.

Although Westfeldt always writes herself the starring role, she’s savvy enough to involve talented colleagues, each of whom is granted an equally rich character. Friends with Kids is no different in that respect, and Westfeldt is doubly lucky to have snagged Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Chris O’Dowd, all still riding high on the buzz of last year’s Bridesmaids.

Thirtysomething Manhantanites Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) have been best friends for years: each squarely in the other’s corner, come what may. Jason seems content to sail through a series of short-term relationships with well-endowed hotties; Julie hasn’t been able to make things click in the romance department. Despite their devoted bond, they’ve never considered dating each other, perhaps sensing that such an act might destroy their friendship.

Although not really a “couple” themselves, Julie and Jason are part of a convivial sextet that includes the married Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Wiig), and the equally hitched Alex and Leslie (O’Dowd and Rudolph). Outings are lively, profane and cheerfully vulgar: good friends having great times together.

Westfeldt has a good ear for the way comfortable acquaintances let their hair down in each other’s company; the earthy dialogue may scorch the eyebrows of those mired in mid-20th century mores, but it feels and sounds authentic.

But this is only a prologue. After granting us enough time to observe this group dynamic, Westfeldt shifts the scene forward four years. Alex and Leslie now have two kids; Ben and Missy have a newborn. Julie and Jason, still single and childless, find themselves taking an expensive cab ride to Alex and Leslie’s Brooklyn apartment, for a gathering — Jason’s birthday — that once would have been celebrated, in high style, at a Manhattan restaurant.

And even though Julie and Jason have brought the food, the wine and the cake — and, in Julie’s hands, the only gift Jason will receive this evening — they arrive to find two sets of harried parents doing nothing but sniping at each other.

Hardly the proper mood for birthday festivities.

Westfeldt choreographs this scene quite shrewdly. On the one hand, this chaos is amusing — to us, as outside viewers — and the various displays of exasperation (particularly those coming from Rudolph’s Leslie) are very funny. And yet there’s an edge present: Those who remember being new parents will find this scene painfully familiar, and some of the squabbling — notably between Ben and Missy — has a nasty, spiteful tone.

Later that evening, dolefully sharing drinks and the remnants of birthday cake by themselves at a bar, Julie and Jason wonder if this is the inevitable result of having children: the utter death of romance. No, they decide; there must be a better way. Maybe unattached best friends would make superior parents; after all, each would only need to be — in Jason’s words — “100 percent committed, 50 percent of the time.”

Having always wanted a child, and mindful of her biological clock, Julie succumbs to this crazy notion; Jason happily agrees to participate. And so they have a baby, much to the disbelief and displeasure of their friends, who — intriguingly — feel that their own lifestyle choice is being threatened.

That latter irritation is amplified by how competent Julie and Jason become, as full-time/half-time parents. Their apartments don’t resemble disaster zones, and they always manage to display all the necessary little touches — including fancy appetizers (a droll touch) — for company.

Even more unsettlingly, they have time to date. Jason has met Mary Jane (Megan Fox), a sexy Broadway dancer with no interest in starting her own family; Julie has fallen for Kurt (Edward Burns), a kind, intelligent and recently divorced single father with two kids of his own.

Leslie, Alex, Ben and Missy can’t believe what they’re seeing. Rather than going down in flames, Julie and Jason are making this work. Really? Seriously?

Well ... maybe not. And that, of course, is the insightful sting in Westfeldt’s script. Love, romance and particularly parenthood are complicated, messy and deeply powerful. Careful, well-planned intentions can go only so far, when emotions are involved. And the bill always — always — comes due.

The six primary characters are very well drawn, even if some occasionally slide into caricature. Rudolph’s Leslie makes an art form of annoyance, and she’s always quick to blame her husband for not contributing his half to the sticky, sloppy bedlam of child-rearing. Alex wisely refuses to engage, cheerfully accepts all blame, while somehow retaining his dignity. O’Dowd has the best straight lines, all impeccably timed.

But Leslie’s apparent hostility is only superficial, and Alex knows this; this is a strong, devoted relationship. And while Leslie is convinced that Julie and Jason are approaching a cliff, Alex secretly hopes that his unmarried friends somehow will sprout wings and soar across the chasm.

Ben and Missy aren’t so lucky. Although Hamm initially shades Ben as an impatient jerk with a hair-trigger temper, he’s actually the most perceptive character in this story; his analysis of relationships during a conversation with Jason, late in the third act, is spot-on.

Wiig’s Missy remains a bit under-developed; she always seems subdued, and I constantly waited for some spark or self-defensive feistiness that never arrived.

Scott walks a very fine line, since at first blush Jason seems an unrepentant horndog who’s completely oblivious to deeper feelings in a woman. In fairness, Julie encourages and even participates in the frank and boastful discussions of his sexual encounters, and — to Jason’s credit — he participates fully and wholeheartedly in their unusual “family” dynamic.

But Jason misses the cues that signal his best friend’s deepening sorrow, and fails to notice the fleeting pain that flashes through her eyes, when he discusses Mary Jane.

Fox’s narrow acting range is well suited to playing a self-absorbed Broadway gypsy, and the always charming Burns makes the too-good-to-be-true Kurt somehow credible. I rather doubt, however, that either one of them would hang around after the utter disaster of the Vermont skiing weekend that proves a little too emotionally combustible. That’s the only time I felt Westfeldt — as scripter — overplayed her hand.

Julie is the most complex character, of course; that’s only reasonable, as this is clearly Westfeldt’s project. She wrote herself a juicy part; Julie is warm, witty, intelligent and sensitive. And, as the story progresses, she becomes vulnerable, fragile and — eventually — strong enough to start making tough choices. It’s an impressive emotional arc.

And, similarly, Friends with Kids is an impressive little film. Westfeldt manages to eat her cake and have it; she orchestrates an amusingly naughty, crowd-pleasing comedy while drawing (mostly) engaging performances from a cast of scene-stealers ... and then successfully shifts tone to deliver a solid moral. Many filmmakers try for that sort of narrative complexity; most don’t succeed.

All that said, I don’t want to oversell the product. This isn’t Shakespeare, and I suspect most guys will avoid this film’s undeniable aroma of “chick flick” (their loss). But as was the case with Kissing Jessica Stein, this is the sort of surprise charmer that rewards those who enjoy pursuing indie flicks. I look forward to Westfeldt’s next turn behind the camera.

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