Film Review: “Friends With Kids”

by Jason LeRoy on March 9, 2012

Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Jon Hamm in FRIENDS WITH KIDS

starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig, Jon Hamm, Megan Fox, Edward Burns

written and directed by: Jennifer Westfeldt

MPAA: Rated R for sexual content and language

Friends With Kids is a delightful collection of contradictions: it is simultaneously elegant and crude, juvenile and wise, laugh-out-loud funny and lump-in-your-throat wrenching, controlled and effortless despite having been filmed in a wildly harried 24-day shoot. Its writer/director/producer/star, Jennifer Westfeldt (making her directorial debut after previously writing and starring in Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira & Abby), wrote the script in two distinct halves, the second coming to her several years after having abandoned the first. And while this plainly shows in the story, it only makes the finished product that much more successful.

As the film begins, Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are the two perennially single platonic best friends in a Manhattan group consisting mainly of couples: Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm). The group meets at a posh restaurant, where both couples radiate love and adoration; everyone seems to be in the prime of their lives, until the meal is interrupted by a family with young children at a nearby table. Julie and Jason complain openly about children being allowed into such a nice restaurant — until Leslie and Alex excitedly announce that they’re pregnant.

We cut to a few years later. Both couples now have young children, and the havoc it has wreaked on their personalities is jarring to say the least. All six friends convene at Leslie and Alex’s home for an old-fashioned group visit, but Julie and Jason barely recognize the shabbily dressed, dead-eyed, foul-tempered misanthropes that were once their vivacious, exciting companions. Their hosts bicker ferociously, while Missy and Ben are gradually being consumed by an energy much darker than mere parenting fatigue. Julie and Jason are shocked. What has become of these beautiful young romances? Where did the good go?

But while they understand that parenthood is largely responsible for this seismic shift in their friends, Julie and Jason still want to have kids, and aren’t getting any younger or closer to finding meaningful partners. So they thoughtfully embrace the kind of “Well, why not?” proposition that has defined all of Westfeldt’s films: Well, why can’t they have a kid as friends? They’re long-time besties, they love each other deeply, and they don’t have a romance for a kid to sabotage. Flushed with idealistic optimism, they become pregnant and have a little boy. And while things go smoothly for the first year, they gradually (and inevitably) begin to experience the complications, emotional and otherwise, that stem from embarking on such a profound undertaking together.

The central premise of Friends With Kids — two friends attempting an intimate arrangement without complications — isn’t exactly a fresh one, particularly coming on the heels of last year’s two fuck-buddy comedies. Even the idea of two platonic friends raising a child together has been done before, although the Adam Scott character is usually gay (The Object of My Affection, The Next Best Thing). And so it is a tremendous testament to Westfeldt’s singular voice as a writer and filmmaker that Friends With Kids still feels so distinctive and self-assured. There isn’t a frame that doesn’t seem charged with her conviction.

This is very much a character piece, and Westfeldt has collaborated with her actors to create vibrant, recognizable characters. Everyone does excellent work. Scott proves he has the chops to carry a romantic comedy, which he has already been exploring episodically in his very sweet arc opposite Amy Poehler on Parks and Recreation. Westfeldt herself has a fine and unusual screen presence, with her high cheekbones and girlishly measured cadence; she has yet to find a role well-suited to her talents that she hasn’t written herself, but hopefully this will prove a breakout moment, especially since she has become best-known for her personal life (she is Hamm’s longtime partner).

And while the marketing (and, admittedly, casting) would have you believe this was Bridesmaids 2, that is certainly not the case. Each of the four overlapping cast members — Wiig, Hamm, Rudolph, and O’Dowd — does considerably more serious work here; Wiig and Hamm are particularly devastating, while Rudolph gets a well-deserved chance to reveal elements of the uncompromising firecracker side she displayed in the underrated Away We Go. She is a tragically underutilized dramatic actor. There are also fine supporting roles for Edward Burns and Megan Fox — yes, Megan Fox — as respective love interests for Julie and Jason. I’ve been a fan of Fox since Jennifer’s Body and her SNL gig, so it is heartening to see her in this kind of film.

Most of Friends With Kids rings true, although there are a few hollow notes; particularly, the first sequences depicting Julie and Jason’s life together with the baby are perhaps a bit too breezy, too similar to their casual pre-baby lives. You fear the film may steer into sitcom territory, where characters pop out babies with very little consequence. And the film’s chronology is quite ambitious for a comedy; it seems to jump around over a good five years or so, which can be distracting. But these are petty squabbles compared to the significance of Westfeldt’s achievement. A thoroughly satisfying cross between Woody Allen and Mike Nichols (who served as an executive producer), Friends With Kids is one of the first genuinely remarkable films of 2012.

Friends With Kids opens in San Francisco today.

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