Friday 29 June 2012

Child benefits: "Friends with Kids"

The premise of Friends with Kids is that having children brings couples together and tears friendships apart. Single Manhattanites Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt, the film's writer-director) are left looking on in disbelief as their settled contemporaries' spacious, well-appointed living spaces fall into toy-scattered, puke-spattered disarray. For these two, the matter of conceiving a child will be undertaken in the spirit of practicality, an attempt to "beat the system" and bring life into the world without incurring the stresses and strains a married couple might face upon becoming parents; even when their child arrives, they will continue to live in separate apartments, and offer up their services as babysitters for those nights when their co-creator has a date with somebody else. As experiments go, it's a novel and very contemporary one, but one that, according to Movie Law, simply cannot work. The rest of the film will throw all the poop it can at this pair to impress upon them how wrong their arrogant thesis was, for the benefit of those couples in the audience who have spawned already, or have their hearts set on spawning in the future.

What Westfeldt has spotted, and is pretty sharp on, is how one couple's lifestyle choices can come to impact upon those of others around them; how doing something even vaguely unconventional can feel like a comment on - or worse still, a criticism of - those who've done everything by the (Spock-authored) book. At a moment when the issue of gay marriage is preoccupying some hetero onlookers more than it perhaps should, this is not un-useful. (Westfeldt made her name with 2001's lipstick-lesbian comedy Kissing Jessica Stein.) There's a frankness here about the human reproductive organs that pushes beyond modern American comedy's default setting of sniggering dick jokes, and generates the kind of snappy, sinewy dialogue that has blue-chip comic actors buzzing around it. Friends with Kids is the platform for Adam Scott those of us who've spent the past year mourning the cancellation of TV's Party Down have been waiting for, and it's even savvy and generous enough to make Megan Fox - as the lissom dancer Jason picks up while out walking the kid one morning - appear clued-in and funny, which is an achievement of sorts.

Everybody here is shot to look handsome or pretty, as fits, but - even in the poo-and-puke scenes - the world of the film is somehow a little too pristine to fully connect, and it's faintly smug with it: Westfeldt can't resist getting a laugh at the expense of a nanny who voted for Bush in '04, and the crux of the film is a dinner table fracas where the supporting couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd, Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm, all more or less underused) line up to tell Jason and Julie what terrible, irresponsible non-parents they're being, prompting Jason into taking the stand that sets the happy ending firmly in place. When the alternative is What to Expect When You're Expecting, a romcom that doesn't even think of exploring other options, you can forgive Westfeldt's film its superiority up to a point - but it could have done with more of the blithe looseness Wiig and Rudolph fostered in Bridesmaids. (One executive producer here is Mike Nichols, the godfather of this kind of sophisticat-comedy.) In the end, Friends with Kids sits on or about a par with something like last year's Crazy, Stupid, Love.: it has the good cast, the decent script, and passes the time acceptably without ever threatening to overturn any applecarts. Having children, we learn, is supposed to ruin your carpets and cockblock you in the bedroom, and it makes you a better person for that. For all the subversive gestures Westfeldt makes elsewhere, both we and the film are stuck with that conclusion.

Friends with Kids is in cinemas nationwide.

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