Movie Review: Sharp Writing and a Great Cast Can't Save FRIENDS WITH KIDS from Its Leading Lady

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Writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids is a good romantic comedy near-undone by its woefully underqualified leading lady.  Note: I said “good,” not “great”; the film stumbles a bit to meld Apatovian raunch with Nora Ephron-esque insight, as scatological jokes about explosive diarrhea and Kegel exercises co-exist uneasily next to Manhattan gloss (skillfully captured by cinematographer Will Rexer II) and a final half-hour that all-but abandons the funny in favor of serious conversations about love and loss.

It’s not that Westfeldt handles either side poorly – far from it, in fact.  The director structures her film as a series of short, zippy scenes, so that even if one bit isn’t working, it’s over before it can sour.  The issue is just that these two great tastes (toilet humor; yuppie urbanity) don’t naturally go great together.  Still, a little tonal unease is better than a lot of tonal unease, and Friends with Kids practically sparkles next to peers like Bridesmaids or No Strings Attached.

How unfortunate, then, that Jennifer Westfeldt the Writer/Director can’t overcome the deficiencies of Jennifer Westfeldt the Actress.  As Julie Keller, the female half of the film’s major romantic pairing, Westfeldt proves herself incapable of handling her own script’s emotional twists and turns.  Granted, she doesn’t make it easy on herself: over the course of 100-or-so minutes, Julie and her best friend Jason (Adam Scott) initiate the decision to have a kid together for child-bearing purposes only, and it’s Julie who first begins to suspect that the emotional realities of such an arrangement might prove more complicated than either she or Jason suspect; she begins to develop feelings for Jason (big surprise, I know) and yearns for a family dynamic denied by their agreed-upon “parent the kid by day; dive into the dating pool by night” strategy.

This is the kind of part that actresses kill for in the romantic comedy genre, and I began imagining a Friends with Kids starring other genre stalwarts.  Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, the great Elizabeth Banks: any and all would be an improvement over Westfeldt, who is incapable of selling the part’s dimensions, and I mean that quite literally; her face is so immobile from the nose down that subtle emotions cannot register on it, meaning she has to go big and broad to push her character’s feelings through.  Think When Harry Met Sally if Meg Ryan was wearing a Kabuki stage mask, and you’ll get a sense of the problem.  Key moments – her tentative courtship with Edward Burns’ kind single-dad, a third-act declaration of love to Scott’s character – fall flat because of Westfeldt’s limited expressiveness, and the whole film ends up one-sided.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is that one side belongs to Adam Scott, who gets a chance to strut his stuff as a capable romantic lead.  This versatile character actor has enlivened projects as diverse as “Parks and Recreation” and Torque while working on the sidelines; his understated rhythms prove just as effective with him at the forefront.  His Jason Fryman starts out as an inveterate ladies’ man, and Scott uses his wry demeanor to suggest a kind of self-satisfied hedonism.  Jason might want a kid, but he has no desire to exit the dating pool (a running gag has him telling anyone who will listen about his many sexual conquests, in borderline pornographic detail), and Scott makes you see how comfortable Jason is in his womanizing.  That we still like the heel is a testament to Scott’s natural charisma, and the actor gives Friends with Kids its unlikely dramatic engine – what chance does Julie have of making a life with him if he only wants to make time with every good-looking younger woman that enters his peripheral vision?

Further adding to the overall goodwill is Westfeldt’s brilliant ensemble cast, which – besides Scott – includes Edward Burns, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig.  These players smooth over many of the rough spots, creating whole emotional realms from just a few lines of dialogue here, an off-center scene there.  O’Dowd and Rudolph get the best lines as the most stable couple in Jason and Julie’s circle of friends (Rudolph can do so much with so little – she turns a reaction shot after hearing that Jason has made quiche into a major comic hot-spot), but Hamm and Wiig deserve equal credit for sketching, in a fraction of the time that everyone else has, a couple that burns hot when all is well but then curdles as the pressures of parenthood mount.  You get the sense that, as a filmmaker, Westfeldt loves these people and wants them to do their best work – how else to explain the fact that she gets a loose, funny performance out of RealDollâ„¢ and Transformers hood-ornament Megan Fox?

Pity she couldn’t return herself the favor.  The only time she and Scott display any chemistry – romantic or otherwise – occurs right before they conceive the child; the two begin a long, discursive conversation that starts out as a sexual primer on their likes/dislikes and quickly turns into a passionate defense of their respective intimate quirks.  You still don’t buy Westfeldt’s investment in the part, but it’s also the rare scene that doesn’t posit Jason and Julie as Soulmates-in-training; instead, we watch two narcissists trying to justify their vanities.  But the moment fades, and we’re left with a rom-com that isn’t as edgy as it wants to be, and a heroine who isn’t as engaging as she needs to be.

The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, though, with sharp digital picture and a surprisingly robust 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track.  Features are generally solid.  There’s a good commentary between Westfeldt, Hamm, and Rexer, as well as a terrific “Scene 42: Anatomy of a Gag” featurette that shows Westfeldt’s creative process (it too has optional commentary).  The blooper reel is a hoot, as is the short bit with Megan Fox trying to explain Gears of War to Adam Scott.  Only the bland EPK making-of featurettes and the rightly excised deleted scenes disappoint (note: the deleted scenes have optional commentaries).

Friends with Kids demonstrates the importance of casting; despite having a near-brilliant ensemble, writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt almost torpedoes the whole experience by casting herself as the female lead.  The end result is okay, and it could have been so much better.

Friends with Kids is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

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