What to Expect When You're Expecting
In the mercifully small genre of Hollywood movies adapted from self-help books, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” ranks roughly in the top third, above “He’s Just Not That Into You” and “Think Like a Man,” below “Mean Girls,” and way below the seminal (sorry) “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask.” The movie’s a canned studio confection — one of those ensemble comedy-dramas with multiple plots and predictable dilemmas, and it’s closer to a greeting card like “Valentine’s Day” than anything else. But the writing is sharp and the performances bright, and if you’ve been through the forced gestational march known as pregnancy, there are knowing laughs to be had. If you haven’t, do yourself a favor and stay away.
The setting is Atlanta — or the Georgia Chamber of Commerce’s version of Atlanta, where every day is blissfully sunny except when the characters are sad and it rains. The story lines represent every variation on having a baby short of cloning. Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a children’s book author and pregnancy store proprietor, and her husband Gary (Ben Falcone, of “Bridesmaids”) are finally with child after years of trying. Baby photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) are adopting an infant from Ethiopia. Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford) are 20-something food truck rivals whose one-night stand lands them in the obstetrics ward. (Don’t worry; Marco is mostly excited to be a dad and the A-word is allowed nowhere near the script.)
Further out on the fringes are Jules (Cameron Diaz), an unwed LA fitness guru and TV reality host knocked up by her “Celebrity Dance Factor” partner, Evan (Matthew Morrison, of “Glee”); she eventually lands in Atlanta, but it takes some serious backbending by screenwriters Shauna Cross and Heather Hach to get her there. The most broadly comic couple are Gary’s father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), a superstud NASCAR racer, and his trophy wife, Skyler (swimsuit model Brooklyn Decker); they’re having twins and Skyler’s pregnancy is proceeding with the kind of easy glow that makes other mothers spit blood.
“What to Expect” takes its title and some of its concerns from the best-selling guide by Heidi Murkoff; if you’ve had a kid in the past three decades, you probably have an anxiously dog-eared copy on a shelf somewhere. The book covered the basics with a conversational tone and a welcome lack of hysteria; the movie alternates many of Murkoff’s talking points with character comedy and little life lessons. Bacne? Bed rest? Epidurals? All here. Some of the unhappier aspects of pregnancy are alluded to with as delicate a touch as the movie can muster, but if you want to know about pre-eclampsia, you really should read the book.
“What to Expect” is most comfortable letting its large cast carom off each other with zingers and issues. The funniest scenes — they constitute a whole other movie, actually — are those involving the Dude Group, a quartet of Snugli-wearing dads who rule the park playground and teach Alex the ropes. Chris Rock plays Vic, the unofficial leader, and the movie needs as many of his raucously astute observations as it can get.
Is it too much to ask that Vic notice he’s the only black guy with a semi-major role in a city that’s 54 percent African-American? Of course it is, just as such gnarly topics as single motherhood, teen pregnancy, and pre-term births remain safely offscreen. If it weren’t for the cast, “What to Expect” might Hallmark itself to death, but Banks, Falcone, Quaid, Kendrick, and (surprisingly) Decker give their lines a topspin that almost convinces us the characters are real people rather than types. A scene where Wendy has a meltdown while speaking at a pregnancy expo is glibly amusing stuff, but Banks finds the anger to make it stick.
That said, 10 main characters is too much to juggle, and the movie develops stretch marks (again, sorry) in the final race to the birthing rooms. Director Kirk Jones (“Waking Ned Devine”) does what he can to move things along, but after a certain point his job is traffic management. He’s an improvement over Garry Marshall, at least, and the movie is as pleasant as it is harmless. The unintended message of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is that it’s all in the delivery.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.