Saturday, March 17, 2012

Friends with Kids

Movie Review: Friends with Kids

Director: Jennifer Westfeldt

Reviewed: 16 March 2012

jamesintexas rating--* (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

A frustrating, inconsistent, and poorly edited film, Jennifer Westfeldt serves as writer, producer, director, and star of the film Friends with Kids which starts out with promise (a seemingly honest commitment to exploring modern relationships with graphic language from both sides; a dazzling cast of couples featuring Jon Hamm, Maya Rudolph, and Kristen Wiig), but eventuallly, it collapses under its own contrivance. I hate to use the words "vanity project," but here, I think it applies. In this film, Westfeldt serves as her own worst enemy, relegating some amazing actors to the corners of the picture, while giving herself and the central relationship way too much focus, thus sabotaging what could have been an interesting exploration of modern relationships and feminism.

Adam Scott (wonderful on Parks and Recreation) plays Jason; Westfeldt plays Julie. Both are 30 something best friends who call each other at 4 a.m. to ask cloying questions, despite being in bed with other people at the time. The non-romantic couple is set in the context of two other couples, the hot-and-heavy Wiig and Hamm and the loving, baby-bound Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd. A title card flips us four years forward in the future, and babies have entered the lives of the two other couples, turning Wiig and Hamm against each other, while also making Rudolph and O'Dowd world-weary and worn-out. Because the plot indicates that Jules must be thinking of becoming pregnant, the two friends agree to conceive a child together, not be in a relationship, and share the costs and responsibilities in a 50/50 way. Sex happens, a title card jumps us 9 months into the future, and the non-romantic couple finds itself with a son. Complications ensue.

So, I'm not sure even where to start in dismantling why this film does not work.

There is clumsy editing, and I think even clumsier use of music in certain scenes.
Westfeldt's direction is not as focused or tight as it needs to be. My wife commented that a third act trip to a ski chalet could have served the same purpose and been repurposed into a party at a restaurant or apartment, where most of the film takes place anyway, and she's right. The ski chalet scenes are especially clunky. Megan Fox is probably the best that I've ever seen her here as a romantic interest for Jason; the charming Edward Burns is Kurt, a stand-up guy who disappears from Jules's life without the luxury of a scene to show it. The highlights are the supporting cast of Wiig, Hamm, Rudolph, and O'Dowd. The movie seems alive when they are on the screen in a way that it doesn't when Scott and Westfeldt are.

And in many ways, this gets to the heart of my criticism. Westfeldt has assembled four of the cast members from Bridesmaids, a smash hit from last year in part because it traded upon female relationships (Wiig and Rudolph, in particular) as well as raunchy comedy. Rudolph's recent work on Up All Night show her to be a fiercely funny actress, and Wiig is simply brilliant. So, why would you assemble a cast with two of the strongest modern actresses and relegate them to holding tissues, drinking wine and giving looks, as well as completely ignore the sense that any of these women are friends. There are no scenes in this film where Jules speaks with either Wiig or Rudolph candidly about her radical decision and lifestyle choice. There are no scenes in this film where Jules speaks with her mother or sister(s) or other confidante about what she's going through. When a key relationship is broken up in the film, Westfeldt allows one half of the relationship to have screen time analyzing it and explaining it; the female half of the couple gets zero screen time. And that's a problem for me.

I'm a fan of cursing and jaw-dropping lines. This film has plenty, though at times it seems clunky, trying too hard, and takes me out of the picture. The film seems over-long at times; I resent the writer putting the lines in the mouth of a child who has been silent the entire film only to make them force the climax at the end of the film. There's far too little going on in these characters' lives beyond themselves (the jobs are superficial at best; there's no sense that work is difficult to balance with having a kid, or that money is something that need be a concern). Westfeldt is simply not a strong enough or expressive enough actress to carry this film. Scott handles his line deliveries well (awkward as some of them are), but the central relationship does not work for me, and a conclusion that has been telegraphed from the first scene takes forever to arrive.

Last, the sexual politics of this movie are hesitant and frustrating. A modern take on relationships should acknowledge that these people have friends, family, mentors, people who love them who will talk to them about their choices. I have difficulty buying that any of the characters in this movie were ever friends; there's no indication that they support each other, care for each other, share history together. In a world where blended families do exist (children with divorced parents who have both remarried, etc...), there's little focus on the nuts and bolts of how a relationship is handled. We see drop offs and pick-ups, we see a heightened scene where Jason wants Jules to watch the kid on the ski trip. However, do we really see how this child has affected either of them in terms of their lifestyle, personal philosophy, or habits? I get the sense that this film could have ended radically differently in a nontraditional romantic comedy way, and I would have had more respect for it. However, it chooses not to, and this movie comes down to a series of wrong choices.

It was wrong for Westfeldt to cast herself in such a pivotal role.

It was wrong to regulate the strongest actors, actresses, and characters in the film to the margins or to mangle their performances in sloppy editing.

It was wrong to offer up a modern feminist protagonist who does not have serious conversations with any of the women around her in the film (and certainly does not talk about anything beyond herself, her baby, or her relationships).

It was wrong to expect this film with its budget, cast, and marketing to offer anything fresh or exciting in terms of a relationship movie in 2012.

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