Other than seventh grade, there is no more disconcerting time in one’s social life than that point in a childless person’s adulthood when their friends start having kids. I can’t think of a better onscreen depiction of the feeling of being forsaken and forgotten by the ultimate clique — parents — than the one in writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt’s bright, quick-witted Friends with Kids.
Manhattan singletons and best friends Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) arrive at their married-with-kids friends’ Brooklyn apartment to celebrate Jason’s birthday. The place is a mess — one child is howling, a toddler needs attention and the husband Alex (Chris O’Dowd) is on the toilet while his shrewish wife Leslie (Maya Rudolph) shrieks orders at him. Another set of new parents, Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig), the ones who used to be so hot for each other they would have sex in restaurant bathrooms, are subdued and surly, bickering over who has to feed the baby.
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The main supporting actors are absolutely at ease with each other — no wonder, since all four of them were in Bridesmaids — and Westfeldt nails the atmosphere right down to the casual apologies for Jason’s missing birthday presents. The tone of the marrieds is, “Look, we’re in combat here, we didn’t have time to stop and get you an espresso machine for your selfish single life.” (They’d probably drop an expletive in before “espresso” though — Friends with Kids embraces its R-rating wholeheartedly, with language and much frank talk about sex.) Gobsmacked, Jason and Julie repair to a bar to recover with alcohol. Somewhere between shots they decide divorced parents have the ideal parenting setup: freedom from the pressure of the ticking biological clock and plenty of opportunities to date thanks to halftime parenting duties. Jason and Julie love each other, but not in that way (the reasons given for why they aren’t attracted to each other are of the usual flimsy nature, he’s too short, she’s too flat and so forth), so why not have a baby together as friends and share the duties?
By whisking through the pregnancy itself, Westfeldt sensibly steers clear of the cutesy cravings and mood swings business that make movies like The Back-up Plan so insipid and keeps Friends with Kids from turning into just a Knocked Up knock-off. She also skips over the sleepless nights slapstick — Julie and Jason are fairly natural parents — to focus instead on the challenges of dating as members of the diaper brigade. To Julie’s chagrin, Jason announcement that he thinks he met “the girl” (Megan Fox, faring better than usual, though her voice is as reed thin as her waist) is devastating to Julie. That’s no surprise to the parents clique. “You can’t share all that s— with someone and not get confused,” says Leslie as she comforts her sobbing friend.
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Some might argue that the die was cast in this moment, when Friends with Kids began to head the same direction as Friends with Benefits, its supposedly platonic leads bound for true love. Doesn’t My Best Friend’s Wedding seem almost radical in retrospect, with Dermot Mulroney’s character actually giving Julia Roberts the Heisman? But Jason is so obnoxiously crass about his new girlfriend, “a skinny flexible dancer with a big rack,” and continually vehement about his non-attraction to Julie that when a genuinely nice seeming divorced dad Kurt (Ed Burns) begins wooing Julie, it is entirely reasonable to root for him. At least Kurt thinks Julie is pretty.
Which Westfeldt is, although in a thin-lipped, patrician, Joan Allen way, far from the slinky allure of Megan Fox. Heroines in rom coms are always self-deprecating, but for once, there’s a smidge of truth when Julie tells Kurt “I mean, I can put myself together, you know? But I just have good hair.” Westfeldt would be unlikely to have a chance to star in a movie she hadn’t developed; her last big role was in Kissing Jessica Stein, a bisexual twist on romantic comedies which she also wrote. But she holds the center of Friends with Kids because she’s interesting and less than perfect. The same is true of Adam Scott, with his small, foxy features, scrawny frame and spot on comic timing. Their unconventional appeal is part of the movie’s charm.
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The two of them talk fast at each other, not so much like characters out of a 1940s movie, but like characters out of say, a Nora Ephron movie paying homage to those movies. Precedent would have them end up together, but do they have to? Mary Jane, Fox’s character, is a boy’s fantasy, expert with video games and, as previously stated, flexible, but hey, if that’s what Jason wants, so be it. Meanwhile, that Kurt knows how to treat a lady. The movie looks like every other rom com, all spacious apartments and sleek, woodsy vacation homes, but it takes you through a wider range of responses to the relationships and characters than most. That hint of a doubt as to whether this is a When Harry Met Sally premise or something more truly modern gives the movie at least the kiss of freshness.
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