I don’t see movies in the theater much anymore, but ever since I heard about “Friends with Kids” – the directorial debut of “Kissing Jessica Stein” writer/star Jennifer Westfeldt, also starring Adam Scott from “Parks and Recreation” and a good chunk of the “Bridesmaids” cast (Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Chris O’Dowd and some guy named Jon Hamm who apparently has a TV show returning this weekend) – I made a mental note to get a sitter and take my wife to see it. We had some childcare mishaps over the weekend, which felt appropriate to the movie’s subject, but finally got to slip out to see it last night, and I really enjoyed it.
The short version, for those who haven’t seen it yet – and then, after the jump, some thoughts on specific things in the film for those who have – is that Westfeldt and Scott play best friends who’ve never been interested in each other romantically, and who start to feel their other friends slipping away and turning into different people when they marry off and have children. Interested in having kids, but terrified of what they see as the toxic effect it has on marriages, they decide to game the system by having a baby together as platonic friends, splitting the childcare responsibilities 50/50 while still having plenty of time to date other people and (more importantly) sleep. It’s raunchy at times (though not nearly as much as “Bridesmaids”), dramatic at others, and ultimately a traditional romantic comedy that’s just well-executed with a lot of indie moviemaking values. Scott is particularly excellent in it, but everyone’s good (Westfeldt even gets a human performance out of Megan Fox in a supporting role as one of Scott’s girlfriends), and it was well worth the babysitter for me.
And now onto some specifics about the film (including the ending) so those of us who’ve seen it can discuss, coming up just as soon as I play the kid card and the Brooklyn card…
It’s interesting that all three of Westfeldt’s produced screenplays have been about people trying to make an end run around traditional romantic mores. In “Kissing Jessica Stein” (co-written with Heather Juergensen) two straight women decide to date each other after being frustrated with the quality of the men out there. In “Ira & Abby” (which I haven’t seen), two strangers impulsively marry as a kind of social experiment. And here you have two people who love each other – just not in that way – seeing if they can share a child together while maintaining what they like about their friendship and their adult lives. Westfeldt’s own relationship with Hamm – they’ve been together for 15 years but have chosen not to marry (and, thus far, not to have kids) – isn’t quite so unconventional, but you get the sense watching her movies, and hearing the two of them talk about each other in interviews, that they’ve spent a lot of time studying the way our culture says couples are supposed to function and decided that the system is flawed.
And for the first half of “Friends with Kids,” Westfeldt has fun playing with how much easier this other arrangement might be. One of the best sequences in the film comes early on, when Westfeldt and Scott go to a “party” at Rudolph and O’Dowd’s home in Brooklyn, where the married parents are bickering with each other and struggling to take care of the kids the whole time. It’s sharply-observed without feeling like those characters are being caricatured or judged; having kids just introduces various levels of tension into relationships that didn’t exist before. And then that’s contrasted amusingly in the first scene where the friends get to see how Scott and Westfeldt are doing with the baby, and they are a well-oiled, supportive, tension-free parenting machine. (For a while, things are going so smoothly that my wife and I turned to each other, shook hands and joked that it was time for a divorce so we could have it that easy.)
Yet at the same time, the two movies I’ve seen both end in something of a regression to tradition. In “Jessica Stein,” Westfeldt never gets comfortable being with another woman sexually and winds up making it work with old friend Scott Cohen, though Juergensen decides she’s happier with women, and the two remain BFFs. “Friends with Kids” is even more explicit in suggesting that the old ways have existed so long for a reason. We see that Westfeldt and Scott’s experiment isn’t as neat and clean as they had hoped it would, as the two wind up pining for each other at different, inconvenient times, before we get the familiar scene where he races to tell her how he truly feels about her, she tries to keep her guard up, he keeps pushing, and they all live happily ever after.
Whether that’s Westfeldt acknowledging that she may not know any more about relationships than anyone else, or her just being a fan of romantic comedy traditions, I don’t know. I do know, though, that those more dramatic moments towards the end are some of the movie’s best, particularly that long, uncomfortable scene where the whole group is trying to enjoy a New Year’s Eve dinner together, and a very drunk Jon Hamm (not seeming at all like a very drunk Don Draper, I should note), painfully aware that his own marriage is crumbling, lashes out at Scott and Westfeldt for being naive and for putting their own selfishness above the needs of the son they brought into the world together. It’s dynamite, and a pleasure to watch Scott more than hold his own trading acting punches with Hamm. Hamm’s known for his drama work, but we’ve seen in a number of venues that he can be very funny. Scott, meanwhile, is known as a comedy guy, but his roles occasionally let him show off some impressive dramatic chops, and he was tremendous in this film’s final act.
A good movie, and I’m glad the high-profile cast (even Wiig, who’s not in it very much but whose presence on the poster has to be helping the box office) is getting it some attention as its theatrical release gradually expands.
What did everybody else think?