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Movie Review

Friends With Kids

These ‘Friends’ aren’t there for each other

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 9, 2012
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Why are parents now having such a hard time laughing about parenthood? Often, the good jokes about being a mommy or daddy (or, for that matter, a daughter or son) come from the perspective of a single, childless person. It’s not just because our movies and television shows are written, in part, by single, childless people (although there’s that). There’s also new piety and self-righteousness about parenting. Comedies are nervous to find the real humor and wonder in having a family. It’s usually tragedy or nothing.

Television has a much easier time. But the movies can’t figure out the right angle. “Friends With Kids’’ is an extreme case. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph play two pals stressed by the demands of motherhood. Imagine if “Bridesmaids’’ had been fast-forwarded several years and its best friends married off to the men in that movie (Jon Hamm for Wiig; Chris O’Dowd for Rudolph). Imagine if Wiig and Rudolph were permitted to explore all that children can do to your marriage and body and social life, what having these little people can bring out of you and fill you up with.

Well, keep imagining, because “Friends With Kids’’ isn’t about Wiig and Rudolph. They’re very much on the side of this movie - two slices of succulent pork given the parsley treatment. It’s a regrettable relegation, committed in the name of exploring another aspect of the “single woman wants baby’’ genre. As a title, “Friends With Kids’’ refers to a bunch of buddies who have children. It’s also a variation on “friends with benefits.’’ In this case, Adam Scott and the film’s writer and director, Jennifer Westfeldt, decide to have a child together without being romantically involved. She plays Julie, a single New Yorker who’s almost 40. Her best friend, Jason, is straight, also single and lives down the hall. So on the one hand: Why not? On the other: Why?

Julie is picky. Jason is a pig. When he tells her the arrangement can only be a raging success because they’re not attracted to each other, you bristle for Julie. Jason is the sort of guy who can hurt you without ever knowing. She’s clearly in love with him, anyway. After 30 minutes, you know their friends are right. This won’t work. Not the way they think it will.

Their proposition tries to vary what happened when Harry met Sally: Can a man and woman be friends without a baby getting in the way? The shallow manner in which that question is dramatized here sucks away the movie’s emotional energy while providing the equivalent of one of those trend stories you see in certain urban magazines. Westfeldt hasn’t written Julie and Jason to be surprising or even terribly interesting. After their son is born, they become mostly predictable and transparent. When he starts dating a selfish Broadway showgirl named Mary Jane (Megan Fox), it takes Julie no time to expand her social circle to include Kurt (Edward Burns), the saintly, truly hunky divorced dad she’s dating. Naturally, at least one group event also involves Jason and Mary Jane.

The movie gives us glimpses into the lives of Julie and Jason’s married friends but neglects to provide earplugs. Missy and Ben (Wiig and Hamm) and Leslie and Alex (Rudolph and O’Dowd) do a lot of screaming and bickering and eye-rolling. This parsley is bitter. You realize the real question facing Julie and Jason is: Can two people have a baby, stay friends, and not wind up starring in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’’

Westfeldt previously co-wrote and starred in “Kissing Jessica Stein,’’ a comedy in which a single woman turns to another woman for love. It, too, was a glossy magazine trend story (“Trysexuals!’’), but it felt personal for her. This movie swerves from fantasy to nightmare. It doesn’t feel like the story a wife and mother would volunteer to tell about herself. It’s the one her single, childless friend would. The sharpest, most authentic material in “Friends With Kids’’ occurs before Julie and Jason strike their deal, when they’re two people reluctant to amend the freedoms, snobbery, and idiosyncrasies of a single person’s life. On their way to a party, she asks him, “Are we late enough? Should we circle?’’ It’s not a clever line exactly, but it feels true.

Westfeldt delivers it with an ingénue’s breathiness and wonder. But the appeal of her intelligent dingbat approach tires quickly. So does Scott’s aggression and sardonic bluntness. They’re supporting players miscast as stars. Scott is best when navigating an ensemble, as he does on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation’’ and did on the Starz show “Party Down.’’ He’s not the actor this movie eventually calls for, particularly by the time the film’s eight characters sit down for a New Year Eve’s dinner whose climax pits Jason against a miserably drunk Ben.

The scene is awkwardly written. You can feel Westfeldt straining to arrive at the big confrontation, which is a gift to Hamm. He and Westfeldt have been a real couple for years, and after spending the movie with nothing to do, he gets to uncork. His speech expresses the sour truth of some marriages, particularly Ben and Missy’s, and it’s full of muscle, gospel, and texture. He’s preaching as much as venting. Scott is outmanned and out-acted. And the movie is transformed.

I don’t know whom Wiig had been playing before Hamm’s eruption, but her stricken, shamed face suggests uncharted dramatic depths. She’s seated near an actor who just turned “Mad About You’’ into “Mad Men.’’ You don’t realize just how wispy and bland this comedy is until this moment of infuriated passion. We see Hamm once more, apologetic and cooled off, but by then the movie isn’t worth watching anymore. He’s burned it down.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.

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FRIENDS WITH KIDS

Written and directed by: Jennifer Westfeldt

Starring: Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Chris O”Dowd, Kristen Wiig, Edward Burns, Megan Fox, and Jon Hamm

At: Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: R (sexual content and language)

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