The Good: Good acting, Good direction, Decent characters
The Bad: Problematic use of some characters (namely Ben and Missy), Utterly predictable
The Basics: Friends With Kids starts as an audacious experiment between two friends who have a child together and develops into an obvious romance story.
Lately, it seems like I am watching a lot of romance movies. I’m fine with that. Ironically, I enjoy a good romance film more than my wife does. But it seems I have hit on a string of duds lately, whatwith Like Crazy (reviewed here!) and Take This Waltz (reviewed here!) completely underwhelming me. But, because it is such a rare thing for my wife to see a preview for a romantic movie that actually leaves her wanting to see the accompanying film, when we saw repeated previews for Friends With Kids and she said she wanted to watch it, I leaped on the opportunity to spend time with her. Friends With Kids became part of a recent all-nighter we pulled together and a component of my praise for it is that it was engaging enough to keep us both awake and enjoying it.
Friends With Kids is a romantic comedy/romantic drama that focuses on two lifelong friends and, peripherally, their friends who have children. Much more focused on Jason and Julie, Friends With Kids has a serious imbalance in the characters that seems exaggerated by the level of (current) celebrity of the neglected characters. In order to keep the film moving (I suppose), the characters of Missy and Ben (Kristen Wiig and John Hamm) are almost entirely neglected for the bulk of the movie. In fact, the purpose of Ben seems to be to call “bullshit” on Jason and Julie exceptionally late in the film and to allow writer, director and actor Jennifer Westfeldt to include a couple whose marriage cannot survive children. While that works great for realism, Missy and Ben are not explored with any real depth, so Ben gets off a few good initial lines, disappears for most of the movie and then resurfaces with a disproportionate presence late in Friends With Kids. Other than that, the only real issue with Friends With Kids is its utter predictability. Jennifer Westdfeldt sets the film up in a way that virtually anyone who has seen a romantic comedy will call in the first ten minutes exactly how the film develops and ends.
Four years after Jason, Julie, and their couple friends Leslie and Alex and Missy and Ben get together for a dinner party out, Leslie and Alex and Missy and Ben have completely different lives based on the fact that they have children that now dominate their lives and relationships. Getting together for Jason’s birthday – which involves Jason and Julie taking an expensive cab ride to Brooklyn where he does not get presents from his stressed friends – Jason and Julie have cause to complain about how miserable the kids have made their friends. Together they develop an idea; the relationships would be better if people had the kids without the stress of trying to maintain the romantic relationships and they decide to have a kid together, without becoming romantically involved.
The experiment seems to be going well, with Julie giving birth to Joe and Jason quickly devoting himself to spending half his time with their baby. As soon as they can, though, they begin dating and Jason finds happiness with a large-breasted dancer and Julie falls for the mature, solid (and tall!) Curt. But during a ski weekend away, Curt asks a question at dinner about how Jason and Julie intend to answer important questions Joe might have as he grows up and Ben leaps upon the opening to force the issue, finally causing several of the relationships with fractures to split altogether and compelling Jason and Julie to look hard at what their friendship actually means to them.
Friends With Kids is characterized most by sharp writing and witty lines from Jennifer Westfeldt. Westfeldt is funny and takes what could be an utterly ridiculous premise for a romantic comedy and makes it into a surprisingly smart, well-conceived drama. More than being a comedy, Friends With Kids is a drama with some cleverly executed hilarious lines; throughout the film, Westfeldt has the characters wrestling with complex issues and ideas in interesting and realistic ways.
But, it is predictable. Missy and Ben are a couple characterized by their repression, their quiet suffering through what having a child has done to them. On the flip side, Leslie and Alex vent almost constantly with one another and while their relationship is a bit louder than some might like, it clearly works for them and they are communicating. Honesty, of course, being the cornerstone of a healthy relationship, Jason and Julie are given the stacked deck of having the apparently most healthy relationship by the fact that they communicate constantly and are fearlessly honest with one another. That honesty leads Jason to nail home constantly early on how he is not attracted to Julie (her breasts are too small for him, for example) and while Westfeldt addresses that aspect late in the film, that sudden change feels like one of the few contrivances that defies the otherwise honest and interesting narrative the two have.
One of the character aspects I enjoyed was how Jason actually maintains his honesty, even as Julie becomes less honest with him. For example, on the ski weekend when Jason and Julie both want time with their significant others, Julie tells Jason it is okay with her to keep Joe with her and Curt when it is clear that she does not want that at all. Despite his minimized presence in Friends With Kids, Jon Hamm’s Ben has an interesting character in that his two big scenes actually allow him to do what his clearly taboo in his marriage, which is to express his honesty aloud. When Ben pushes on the lack of forethought in the plan Jason and Julie had, he is not entirely wrong by any means and Friends With Kids is clever enough to give him the freedom to have that kind of depth and complexity. In fact, the only flaw with that scene is that Jason and Ben so completely dominate it that it thoroughly diminishes Julie’s character (i.e. while Jason and Ben verbally duke it out, she simply sits and watches like the others who are not directly involved).
Friends With Kids has decent acting, at least based on the limitations of the characters in the script. So, for example, Kristen Wiig is fine as Missy, but she is given almost nothing to do but sit in stony silence and portray clearly repressed anger and cry on demand at one key moment. Wiig is up to the task, but it is not a particularly complex or nuanced performance. Similarly, Chris O’Dowd, who plays Alex, gives a great early performance in Friends With Kids that is almost ruined by too much dialogue to support what the actor is already clearly giving the role. When Jason and Julie tell Leslie and Alex their baby plan, Alex sits nodding in clear understanding of the plan and the philosophy behind it. By the time he vocalizes his agreement, it is redundant because O’Dowd has already done an amazing job of conveying his character’s views. Megan Fox appears in Friends With Kids as another character who is pretty much along for her looks (which is par for the Megan Fox course), with little substance to back up the role. But, to Fox’s credit, the main problem with her character, Mary Jane, is a script one: Mary Jane is characterized articulately as not wanting children, yet gets involved with Jason knowing full well he has one and why that is is never satisfactorily explained or explored.
This was the first work with Jennifer Westfeldt I had seen and she is good as Julie. The pleasant surprise on the acting front, though, was Adam Scott. Scott, who seems to have had a meteoric rise in the last few years, credibly holds down the dramatic role of Jason. He is articulate and able to play emotionally aware in a way that seems entirely real and entertaining, which is unlike most of his deadpan or darkly comedic roles he has previously played.
On DVD, Friends With Kids comes with a commentary track, deleted scenes, featurettes, and a gag reel, all of which add enhanced value to the work. This is a complicated film with a deceptively simple idea and the bonus features explore well the more adult nature of what could have been a screwball comedy. They are also pretty solidly entertaining bonus features.
Ultimately, Friends With Kids is one of the best romantic dramedies to be released of late and it is refreshing to have a work where the destructive nature of children on relationships is fairly explored.
For other works with Megan Fox, check out my reviews of:
How To Lose Friends And Alienate People
Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen
For other films I have reviewed, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |