Friday, May 18, 2012

What to Expect When You're Expecting: Engaging delivery

What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, profanity and occasional crude references
By Derrick Bang

Nonfiction “personal lifestyle” books are an odd choice to adapt as a film comedy; the results can be unusual, to say the least.

When a married guy is about to become a new father and wants some sage
advice, who's he gonna call? The "Dude Patrol," of course: from left, Gabe
(Rob Huebel), Patel (Amir Talai), Vic (Chris Rock) and Craig (Thomas Lennon).
The most notorious example is Woody Allen’s 1972 handling of David Reuben’s best-selling Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask, but it’s by no means alone. More recent examples include Michele Alexander and Jeannie Long’s 1998 dating manual, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days: The Universal Don’ts of Dating, translated into a so-so romantic comedy with Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey; and Rosalind Wiseman’s 2002 parenting guide, Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughters Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence, which became the 2004 Lindsey Lohan vehicle, Mean Girls.

And could anything have been stranger than the 2002 romantic dramedy made from William Powell’s 1970 counter-culture manual for revolution, The Anarchist Cookbook?

This eclectic company now has been augmented by What to Expect When You’re Expecting, a romantic comedy sorta-kinda suggested by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel’s revolutionary 1984 pregnancy manual. The good news is that scripters Shauna Cross and Heather Hach have concocted a reasonably entertaining ensemble comedy in the intertwined-character mode of Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve.

Director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) capably rides herd on the large cast — most of the time — granting more or less equal exposure to half a dozen sets of characters and divergent narratives, which eventually intersect to one slight degree or another. The result is enjoyable, occasionally hilarious — Chris Rock, in particular, remains one of the funniest guys on the planet — and even fitfully faithful to its source material.

But not perfect. A sidebar trip to Ethiopia, when one couple adopts an African orphan, is much too grim for a movie this frothy; even fleeting glimpses of poverty are enough to snuff the rest of the film’s larkish vibe, despite Jones’ effort to lend dignity through a ritualized adoption ceremony.

Financial means is an issue of concern to a few of these characters, as well, and we never do get closure on the crisis that results when one loses her job. That’s rather sloppy.

Fortunately, we’re mostly occupied by the trials and tribulations of five women, the men in their orbits, and their shaky, cautious and wholly unprepared efforts to start a family. If one lesson is carried away from this film —no doubt is referenced frequently in Murkoff and Mazel’s book — it’s this: You simply can’t prepare for everything. At some point, you gotta just go with the flow and roll with the punches.

Baby-crazy author and “lactation expert” Wendy Cooper (Elizabeth Banks) has become maniacal in her determination to maximize conception via carefully timed, ah, “appointments” with her accommodating husband, Gary (Ben Falcone). As it happens, Wendy learns of her happy pregnancy just as Gary’s competitive, alpha-prime father, Ramsey Cooper (Dennis Quaid), and his much younger trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), make the same announcement.

And, to Ramsey’s one-upsmanship glee, Skyler is pregnant with twins ... which means two new mini-Coopers to Gary and Wendy’s one. (And yes, the script trades on that cute pun. Perhaps overmuch.)

Television fitness guru Jules (Cameron Diaz) and dance show star Evan (Matthew Morrison, of Glee) are a recent couple, having just won top honors as partners on TV’s Celebrity Dance Factor. They’re also about to become parents, but Jules isn’t about to let a baby bump interfere with her busy, jet-setting lifestyle.

Holly (Jennifer Lopez), a professional photographer who shoots baby photos and family-oriented close encounters with sea life at the local aquarium, has abandoned any hope of bearing her own child; she now has turned to adoption. Holly’s husband, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro), can’t quite keep pace with his wife’s ambitious plans for starting a family and buying the “perfect house,” as the icing on this maternal cake.

Alex therefore tries to quell his mounting panic by joining a “Dudes Support Group,” where four new fathers hang out together in the park each day, trading advice and telling it like it really is.

Finally, rival food truck chefs Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford), who never quite clicked as high school sweethearts, surrender to impulse and the mutual attraction that erupts during a friendly argument one evening. This hook-up brings the usual consequence of unprotected sex, along with an unsettling question: What happens when your first child comes before your first date?

Alex’s outings with the Dudes are a stitch, in great part because of the Head Dude, Vic (Rock). Vic’s advice and “dude rules” are hilarious, each pearl of wisdom delivered with Rock’s impeccable comic timing. But Rock isn’t the entire package; the very image of the dudes, as we first meet them — a “suited up” group shot intended to riff on Batman’s utility belt or well-armed action heroes — is funny enough to put you on the floor.

Vic and his compatriots — Gabe (Rob Huebel), Craig (Thomas Lennon) and Patel (Amir Talai) — function as a comedic Greek chorus, although their exaggerated bantering never conceals the crucial fact that, nappies and all, these emasculated misfit love being fathers.

The dynamic between Quaid’s Ramsey and Decker’s Skyler also is a hoot, complete with mutual pet names that are so embarrassing, they become even funnier. Skyler blossoms as the impossible fantasy of a pregnant woman: the one who never loses her composure, never succumbs to hormonal imbalance, delights in her baby bump — going so far as to have her belly tattooed — and, in the deliver room, calmly does her work without a bead of sweat appearing on her brow.

In short, the pregnancy-suffering Wendy — all her careful research and authorial “guidance” now exposed as idealistic nonsense — grows to loathe the very sight of Skyler. But Skyler never notices; she’s too cheerfully well-balanced to take offense. And this, too, is an amusing dynamic.

Jules and Evan do a lot of talking and arguing — mostly over whether to circumcise their baby, when he arrives — but Diaz and Morrison never look, sound or feel like an actual couple. Their performances are superficial, which is ironic, given the shallow natures of their characters (and no, I don’t think Jones directed them this way intentionally, as some sort of clever statement).

In contrast, Kendrick and Crawford seem quite authentic as an embryonic couple, but Rosie and Marco are inhabiting some other film. Their spontaneous one-nighter and subsequent attempt to bond are sweet, tender and genuine; Kendrick (“Up in the Air,” “50/50”) continues to be an actress of subtle sensitivity, her body language carefully attuned to every scene’s unique demands.

In other words, Rosie and Marco feel real, as opposed to the mostly exaggerated caricatures romping through the rest of the film. The tonal shift can be jarring, and I also regretted having to leave these two young people, each time the narrative shifted to somebody else; I’d love to have seen an entire film devoted to Rosie and Marco.

Another supporting character worth mention: Rebel Wilson’s marvelous turn as Janice, Wendy’s zaftig assistant in their mom-oriented shop, The Breast Choice. Janice is perhaps one spark plug short of an engine, and her often ill-timed and occasionally clueless remarks are a stitch, in great part because of Wilson’s comic timing. Would that she and Rock could have shared a few scenes, but — alas — it doesn’t happen.

Few films include the services of a “special prosthetics makeup effects supervisor,” and I must acknowledge that Matthew Mungle — in that role — does a persuasive job with the growing baby bumps displayed by each actress. And Diaz, in particular, deserves credit for letting it all hang out during Jules’ bug-eyed delivery sequence. Yes, we’ve seen this scene scores of times, but Diaz brings some fresh humor to the situation.

The bulk of the film is set in Atlanta, which is a nice change; it’s refreshing to see bits of Georgia instead of the ubiquitous Los Angeles or New York, where most rom-coms invariably take place.

Bottom line: What to Expect is an engaging and frequently funny date flick. While the screenplay occasionally slides in awkward directions, I must admit that Jones has done a reasonable job of delivering a film conceived from a best-selling pregnancy manual.

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