By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 13, 2011 at 7:25AM
The concept of the nuclear family is now something of an outdated notion. With children now found in a wide array of living situations -- single parents, gay parents, adoptions, etc. -- the "ideal" of a child being raised by a mommy and a daddy is shifting, with a newer idea of just two good parents -- whomever they may be -- being of utmost importance. The film world is slowly beginning to recognize and write stories that reflect the changing times. Of course, "The Kids Are All Right" is one of the best movies to present an unconventional family, while "The Switch" represents what happens when you try to approach this kind of thematic material without anything to say. Jennifer Westfeldt's ("Kissing Jessica Stein") latest effort behind the camera, "Friends With Kids," finds the actress/writer/director oscillating between an intelligent look at modern relationships and a conventional rom-com, to mixed results.
The story centers around Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt), best friends and successful professionals who are enjoying the casual sex, good food and fabulous apartments of Manhattan along with their small circle of close pals and couples. There's Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd). But one evening Jason and Julie get a bombshell bit of news: their friends have kids on the way. Fast forward four years and the dynamics of the group have changed. Everyone has moved to Brooklyn to raise their families and the once hip, put together friends they once knew have changed in to harried, angry, stressed out and exhausted parents, bearing little resemblance to their younger selves. Moreover, in both couples, the addition of children to their lives has strained the romance that was once palpable and seemingly unquenchable.
Seeing their friends in the throes of parenthood has a profound effect on Jason and Julie. They are still unsuccessfully trying to find love, and as they get older, the dating pool is becoming increasingly more limited. However, both Jason and Julie admit they do want kids...suddenly a light bulb moment happens, and the two come up with an elaborate plan to not only have a kid but avoid the messiness of a relationship. Jason and Julie will go the traditional route to conceive, but will remain free to see and date other people, while splitting responsibility for their offspring down the middle. Since they both already live in the same building, the sharing of the parental duties will be made much easier, and pretty soon Julie is pregnant and giving birth. That's right, where most movies would have made that decision the entire plot, for Westfeldt it's just the beginning, and thank goodness for that.
Everything before the birth of their child Joe is uneven to say the least. Try as they might, Scott and Westfeldt's chemistry never quite feels like it belong to a couple that have known each other for nineteen years. Certainly Hamm/Wiig and O'Dowd/Rudolph take like ducks to water in their roles, though likely some of that comfort likely came from working on "Bridesmaids" together as well. But it's the second half of the film where the story really picks up and begins to wind itself in interesting directions. To the utter astonishment and disbelief of their friends, not only do Jason and Julie stick to their plan, but it seems to be working quite well, and free of the fights and bickering that mark their own home lives. Westfeldt's script impressively navigates this unusual relationship with a believability and originality that is impressive. Moreover, the characters of the supporting cast undergo changes in their own lives as the years go on in the film, making their reactions and feedback informed by the shifting tides of their own experience. It's here where Westfeld's script really shines and becomes something special, but unfortunately she can't take it over the finish line.
The movie never quite sticks a landing, and perhaps unsure of where to take the story, Westfeldt falls back into standard rom-com tropes, to the film's detriment. Needless to say, you will know how this one concludes well before it gets there and we just wish the writer/director would have retained the bravery and honesty of her second act through to the end. Instead what we get is a contrived wrap up that could be from any number of movies and disappointingly sells short the characters and premise. But if Westfeldt doesn't quite deliver with the story, the great cast she has lined up break her fall. Of the supporting cast it's Chris O'Dowd who nearly steals the whole show as the laissez faire dad and husband Alex; his one-liners and his ability to talk and use his schlubby charm to disarm volatile situations create some of the biggest laughs in the movie. And one of the film's best scenes overall finds Hamm and Scott squaring off in a perfectly written dramatic showdown; if you had any doubt as to the latter's range, this moment will convince there is much more than just smart-ass quips in his arsenal.
But it all comes back to the film, and while the cast does some great work, "Friends With Kids" never quite commits to the direction it promises to go in. The result is a film that features a great middle third, with a patchy start and a bland finish. While "Friends With Kids" sets us up for a story about contemporary couples unlike what we usually see at the multiplex, it falls back to a familiar movie-ness that belies the intelligence, wit and charm found in its better moments. [B-]