The awfulness of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, an ugly brew of guide book, reality television and romantic comedy, is of course, entirely to be expected. Taking the bible of pregnancy, a book rich only in details about such matters as the sensibility of caffeine intake while gestating and the probability of hemorrhoids after delivering, and turning it into a ensemble featuring a dozen or so prospective parents has to be one of the more misconceived ideas in recent Hollywood history.
You might wonder how it is even possible to base a fictional story on a book that functions solely to explain bodily functions and is devoid of any non-fetal characters. It isn’t. What is possible is the purchase of a name and brand that are as identified with pregnancy as hamburgers are with McDonalds. Heidi Murkoff et al.’s guide book to pregnancy is, in publishing terms, one of the biggest bestsellers of all time. It is a book reliably read by nearly every pregnant woman (a USA Today poll estimated 93 percent of them) although perhaps not purchased; an informal poll conducted of the mothers of my acquaintance indicated all of them wanted it out of their house as soon as all children were acquired and thus their copies were pressed on the next victim of morning sickness as fast as possible. Milquetoast in mood, scolding in tone, it’s a book you kind of need but don’t want.
That a movie version of the book exists is such a crass grasp at baby-hungry consumers it practically qualifies as a mugging. The theory has to have been option the name, gain the readers. (Although will they be drawn to the name, or just think it is bizarre that it is now a feature film?) Directed by Kirk Jones (Everybody’s Fine) and shot mostly in bright, hard, strangely sterile light, What to Expect is the movie equivalent of a pop-up ad, utterly insidious, expertly tailored to cover all reproductive contingencies (from miscarriage to pre-term labor and adoption) and yet impersonal and generic. It took me half the movie to figure out the American city in which it is set (Atlanta, which comes off looking better than any of the actors).
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There are five expectant moms, which had to be created from scratch by writers Shauna Cross (Whip It) and Heather Hach (Freaky Friday) given that there are no characters in the text. Elizabeth Banks plays a woman who dresses like a Kate Spade ad but without irony, runs a mothers-only shop called The Breast Choice and has a dorky nice husband (Ben Falcone). After years of fertility issues, they conceive, just as his father (Dennis Quaid), a pathologically competitive retired race car driver, impregnates his hot young wife (Brooklyn Decker). Cute panini chef (Anna Kendrick) gets knocked up during a one-night stand with another proprietor of a food truck (Chace Crawford). Meanwhile a sweet photographer with a bum uterus (Jennifer Lopez) is adopting a baby from Ethiopia with her less than enthusiastic spouse (Rodrigo Santoro). His reluctance occasions his forced educational sessions with a dad’s group (Chris Rock, Amir Talai, Rob Huebel, Thomas Lennon), who are respectively shrill, whiny, bland and weanyish. These guys strain so hard for laughs, particularly of the “my wife is so controlling/bitchy/demanding” variety that they ought to be the ones with hemorrhoids.
What do these people have in common, besides babies, Atlanta and barely-there story lines? Beyond making money, I can’t see the point of this particular movie. Much better pregnancy tales, of the funny, sweet and sad varieties, include Juno, Waitress, Knocked Up and Junebug. Even Father of the Bride Part II tops this. Eventually a few of them pass each other in the night, but the gossamer thread connecting them is — get this — a shared fondness for a reality television show modeled on Dancing with the Stars. It’s not like they watch it together either. We see them on their individual couches, watching the show, which features a tabloid-ready romance between a hard-as-nails weight loss guru—and TV star—Jules (Cameron Diaz) and her teammate, dancer Evan (Glee’s Matthew Morrison) that leads to an unexpected pregnancy. Evan pores over the pages of What to Expect (the only time the actual book is shown) with furrowed brow, presumably because Jules is considered of advanced age.
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I may overlooked somebody – characters flit about, either moaning about how much they have to pee or moping about infertility. These are all snapshots, not so much people as index topics. Banks and her character’s assistant at the shop (Rebel Wilson, who also played the crazy roommate from Bridesmaids) were the only characters that made me laugh at all and that was almost entirely due to the actresses’ timing, rather than the writing. Kendrick brings her usual bright intensity, but her role and narrative arc is particularly poorly conceived, an awkward nod to all possibilities. Although there are many tedious scenes set in delivery rooms, the only remotely moving moment in What to Expect features Lopez’s character embracing her adoptive child for the first time. I’d take that as a subtle dig at America’s fiercer obsession with pregnancy than actual parenting, but I think that is expecting too much from What to Expect.
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The conversion of a self-help book into a work of fiction is not without precedent; in 2009 the likes of Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck assembled for the adaptation of the dating manual He’s Just Not That Into You. It was dismal, but in both intent and content, less so than What to Expect. He’s Just Not That Into You had at least a provenance related to romance and comedy—before it was a self-help book, it was a phrase used to fine effect in an episode of HBO’s Sex and the City—whereas What to Expect, with its nonsensical connection to a plotless bestseller, represents nothing so much as the desperation of the romantic comedy genre, which seems so withered as to be on its last legs. This movie made me feel I was visiting the genre’s grave.