They say if the hope for a distinguished movie career becomes a steep climb in this age of hack directors, lousy scripts and formulaic trash, then do it all yourself. A lovely triple-threat named Jennifer Westfeldt is putting this theory into fast-lane action. The co-writer and star of the independent film Kissing Jessica Stein now returns as producer, actress, sole scriptwriter and director of Friends With Kids. (OK, Westfeldt is a quadruple threat.) It’s a snappy and warmly observed film about the contemporary mores of dating hell, marriage and parenthood.
She’s obviously been influenced by the candid, full-frontal assault on decency by people such as Judd Apatow and the Farrelly Brothers, because the film sometimes borders on pornography. But it has more heart and is more intelligent and mature in every way. And Westfeldt gets a lot more than show-off obscenity from her actors. The tightly knit ensemble of friends and supporters she has drafted is committed and talented, and the camaraderie pays off.
As the group dynamic of six New Yorkers moves beyond friendship to embrace marriage and kids, the long-run loyalty of best buddies Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) remains unbreakable. In their inner circle, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) have left Manhattan to become fertile exiles in the pram-pushing supermarkets of Brooklyn. Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm), the sexiest couple they know, used to pant with passion for each other and now the pressures of parenting have all but driven them apart. With no partners and no role models to ensure emotional freedom, Julie and Jason vow to never fall into the same trap as their once-vibrant pals. They would like to have a baby like everybody else, but they look around them and see nothing but horror. Their friends never enjoy a single meal in peace. Nobody can finish a conversation or a plate of pasta without chasing a shrieking child or changing a disgusting diaper.
Avoiding the accompanying traditional stress that is aging their friends prematurely, eschewing the jangled nerves and invasion of privacy that goes with marriage, they promise to escape any hint of the kind of noisy, annoying traditions that might dangerously jeopardize their fondness for each other and wreck their independence. So they decide to skip the marriage and divorce stuff, just have a baby, and raise it together without all the crap that goes with romance and heartbreak—no strings attached. This way, they can avoid compromise and be 100 percent committed “half the time.” Brainy Julie declares a new motto: “Strategize, focus, prioritize!”
While Julie goes on with her career and tests out new potential lovers, Jason’s reputation as a serial satyr heads for black-belt status. It all seems perfect, but with all that talk about feces, vomit and exercises for the vagina, it’s no wonder that even a platonic couple’s most carefully laid plans have a way of backfiring when the human heart gets in the way. Unexpectedly, Julie finds the handsomest, most loving husband material in Kurt (Edward Burns), and Jason takes up with a libidinous tattooed Broadway dancer in Chicago named M.J. (Megan Fox). Joining their old friends, all four couples go away on a Vermont ski weekend and all hell breaks loose. From here on, nothing is the same, everyone changes, and the movie becomes best described in the lyrics of a Cole Porter song: I loved him but he didn’t love me/I wanted him but he didn’t want me/Then the gods had a spree/And indulged in another whim/Now he loves me but I don’t love him.
There’s nothing new about the material, but it’s the way Westfeldt mixes dramatic intensity with effortless naturalism that makes the film so charming. The impressive ensemble is so uniformly tuned in to the director’s goals that you really get the feeling these people have known each other for years. It’s especially exciting to see Hamm (Westfeldt’s offscreen squeeze and the star of Mad Men) work beyond his impossible matinee-idol looks to probe beneath the skin of an 8 x 10 glossy who bought the American Dream and found a hole in it. The predictable relationship elements that drag down the final 20 minutes are not up to the brisk pacing of the rest of the film, but even though Friends With Kids is not a movie everyone will identify with, it fills 110 minutes with enough visual popcorn to keep you satisfied.
Friends With Kids (R) ★★★☆☆