Film Review: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”

by Jason LeRoy on May 18, 2012

Elizabeth Banks and Brooklyn Decker in WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING

starring: Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Elizabeth Banks, Anna Kendrick, Matthew Morrison, Rodrigo Santoro, Ben Falcone, Chace Crawford, Dennis Quaid, Brooklyn Decker, Rebel Wilson, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris Rock

written by: Shauna Cross and Heather Hach

directed by: Kirk Jones

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for crude and sexual content, thematic elements and language

At first glance, a film adaptation of What to Expect When You’re Expecting seems like the shrieking multi-headed succubus queen of all chick flicks. Because really, who would want to watch a movie about not one but four separate heroines each navigating their path to motherhood? Let’s face it: we all know that pregnant women are the worst. Even pregnant women know that. It’s extremely unpleasant for them and unpleasant to a significantly lesser degree for everyone around them. But we are culturally required to focus on their beauty and majesty, luminescent glow, miraculous ladyparts, etc., as a mutually agreed-upon spin to help pass those nine nightmarish months.

But shockingly, thanks to an expertly comedic cast and excellent screenwriters Shauna Cross (Whip It) and Heather Hach (Freaky Friday), What to Expect is a successful and entertaining comedy that mostly steers clear of saccharine “miracle of life” sentimentality. It is not interested in making women ooh and aww; its chief concern is bringing the funny, which it does quite well. It is an ensemble piece with four occasionally overlapping storylines:

  • Cameron Diaz is Jules, a Jillian Michaels-style celebrity fitness guru who gets knocked up by Evan (Matthew Morrison, nearly unrecognizable when not sporting a vest), her dance partner on a Dancing with the Stars-type celebrity dance competition. Jules stubbornly refuses to take a break from filming her fitness show as her pregnancy progresses, and she also insists on heatedly arguing with Evan about whether to circumcise their son. So if you’ve ever wanted to hear Cameron Diaz talk passionately about circumcision, this is your lucky day. Diaz’s segment isn’t especially strong, but the DWTS/The Biggest Loser parodies are perfectly played. Megan Mullaly has a hilarious cameo as Evan’s partner on the next season.
  • Jennifer Lopez is Holly, a down-on-her-luck freelance photographer trying to adopt a baby with her husband, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro). When an African baby suddenly becomes available for immediate purchase, Alex is stricken with cold feet about becoming a parent, so Holly sets him up on a playdate with a group of four dads (Chris Rock, Tom Lennon, Rob Huebel, Amir Talai) who have private bitching time together while pushing strollers in the park. Joe Manganiello plays a perfect specimen of manhood who inspires homoerotic appreciation from the dads, and the invaluable Wendi McLendon-Covey has some nice moments as Holly’s boss.
  • In the funniest and most fully developed segment, Elizabeth Banks is Wendy, the high-strung owner of a baby boutique who finally becomes pregnant with her husband, Gary (Ben Falcone) after years of trying. Wendy and Gary’s excitement is somewhat lessened when they learn that Gary’s cocky mega-rich father (Dennis Quaid), a former NASCAR driver, and his much-younger trophy wife (Brooklyn Decker, delightfully suggesting a ditzier version of Leslie Bibb in Talladega Nights), are also pregnant — with twins. This is by far the richest and most complete of the stories, with another top-notch performance from Banks and a scene-stealing turn from the intriguingly bizarre Rebel Wilson as Wendy’s boutique employee.
  • My one-time assault victim Anna Kendrick is Rosie, a food truck proprietor (because Hollywood finally heard about food trucks and apparently ordered a team of script readers to pour over every romcom script in development, replacing all reference to blogs/bloggers with “food truck stuff”). One night Rosie runs into old flame Marco (Chace Crawford, beautiful and disabled-seeming as ever), a rival food truck proprietor who spurned her several years ago. But when a one-time hookup leaves Rosie pregnant, she gets an abortion. Just kidding! That’s just what she would obviously do in real life under these circumstances. But since this is a romcom, she and Marco decide to raise the child together. This storyline climaxes relatively early, leaving Rosie with little to do for the rest of the film but repeatedly close the back door of her food truck, but Kendrick gives arguably the strongest performance; it is great fun watching her bat bring-a-book Crawford around like a cat toy.

As directed by Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine), What to Expect is blissfully unconcerned with the educational purposes of the Heidi Murkoff books on which it is nominally based. It is a comedy — nothing more, nothing less. It does have several dramatic interludes, but they are brisk and effective; there is one toward the end of Wendy’s chapter that feels a bit forced, as well as a subplot about the rivalry between Gary and his father that essentially overshadows Wendy’s role as protagonist. Similarly, Holly’s chapter seems to be more about Alex and the dad group than about her. This was presumably an effort to help male audiences feel less alienated, since the Jules and Rosie stories are more female-focused.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting is easily the funniest and most enjoyable of the recent onslaught of star-studded omnibus blockbusters (He’s Just Not That Into You, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day). It does not aspire to anything profound or even remotely educational, nor could it be accused of intelligence. But the cast is mostly solid; Banks and Kendrick steal the show from matinee idols Diaz and Lopez, it reunites three members of the Bridesmaids cast — McLendon-Covey, Falcone, and Wilson — and even features an uncredited appearance by McLendon-Covey’s sketch comedy doppelganger, MADtv’s Nicole Sullivan…although suspiciously not in the same scene. There is probably a far smarter, more insightful, and significantly more feminist movie about pregnancy to be made than What to Expect. But at least it’s something that pregnancy is not: a lot of fun.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting opens today nationwide.

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