Movie Review: Friends with Kids
By Matthew Huntley
March 21, 2012
Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) are two best friends living in the same apartment building in Manhattan. What each of them does for a living is not exactly clear, although they must be highly successful and very well-paid to afford the places they live in, even if they are rent-controlled. But I digress.
The two have known each other since college and have become so close they practically finish each other’s sentences; they know what the other is thinking; and they make similar social observations. Whether or not they’ve considered being a couple, we’re not sure, but it would sure seem fitting, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
In fact, Friends with Kids uses their platonic relationship to build its premise: what if Jason and Julie had a child together? After all, each of them likes kids and wants to raise one of their own, but based on all the grief and misery they’ve witnessed their married friends endure, they think the best way to have a kid is by not being romantically involved with the person you’re having it with. They believe that, in this day and age, married couples who raise kids together can only re-obtain happiness by getting a divorce, and their goal is to avoid such a tragedy. They figure they can experience all the pleasures of loving and raising a child without having to hate someone in return. How? Simply by avoiding marriage/romance altogether and splitting the parental duties down the center, 50/50. In their setup, they can live separately and date anyone they want.
What do their married friends - Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm) - think of all this? Well, to their surprise, the plan seems to be working out splendidly. A few months after the child is born, they’re all amazed to find Julie’s apartment spotless and her dinner parties so well organized, not to mention Julie has gotten her figure back and is unusually calm and collect for a new mother. Plus, she finds time to date eligible men like Kurt (Edward Burns). Meanwhile, Jason has begun dating the improbably gorgeous Mary Jane (Megan Fox). Maybe the two of them really did find a way to have their cake and eat it too.
But then the classic conventions of romantic comedies start to kick in and the movie works its way toward a typical Hollywood ending. And based on what you already know about the two main characters, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what that is, so I won’t bother giving away details (not that you need any of my help).
When it comes to romantic comedies, why does Hollywood insist that “happily ever after” always depends on people being together in traditional relationships? Why can’t an unorthodox arrangement ever be seen as an alternative avenue to bliss? I recall George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air, who led a perfectly content life of solitude and one-night stands that he seemed to be okay with until the screenplay interjected and said there’s something wrong with that and endorsed the idea he must be in a committed, long-term relationship to be happy. A similar thing happens in Friends with Kids, and I wish the movie had been bold and daring enough to go the entire distance with its premise instead of caving in to the peer pressures of the genre.
Still, with that said, I did like this movie. It was written and directed by its female lead, Jennifer Westfeldt, and it’s a fine debut. She gives the movie a punchy rhythm, especially with the dialogue. The zippy exchanges between Jason and Julie sound natural and energetic instead of forced and labored, and the cast makes each of the on-screen relationships, be they romantic or friendship-based, seem genuine and believable. This makes the ending easier to bear since we grow so fond of these people and therefore wish them happiness, even if turns out to be of the conventional sort.
Westfeldt has a good ear and there are some truly funny and dramatic moments sprinkled throughout the film, though she might have considered giving more screen time to the other couples, especially the Wiig and Hamm characters. Their marriage descends from uncontrollable passion to mutual hatred so quickly but we don’t fully understand why. It’s as if Westfeldt simply wanted to show that having kids can sometimes crumble a relationship. That can be true, I suppose, but it would have been more meaningful to learn the specifics behind it.
As it is, Friends with Kids is a good movie - smart, pleasant and entertaining - but I can’t help but wonder how much better it could have been had it opted to see its initial ideals through to the end. Had it maintained its edge and tried to bend, or even break, the rules of traditional romantic comedies, it might have pushed itself into “very good” or even “great” territory.