Friends With Kids promotes a novel idea. Well, I guess that depends on who you are. Two good friends have a baby together without any of the pre-required spousal intimacy; they split the custody and keep their romantic side by pursuing separate love interests. It’s a rather insightful blend of whimsy, sarcasm, and reality, oftentimes dark, centered around an all too familiar spiral of a less than hopeful platonic relationship.
Jennifer Westfeldt directs, writes, and stars in this otherwise deeper romantic comedy. She plays Julie, who works in an un-talked about cubicle, while managing to stay single in a Manhattan apartment. A few floors down is her best friend Jason (Adam Scott), who also lives solitary; though, a different woman shares his bed seemingly each week, every girlfriend unified by his superficial busty requirements. Jason and Julie play couple for their other wed locked friends but now into their 30s, they must cherish the moments before both parties begin their own families.
“I think we’ve both observed a lot of people in our world having kids and being out of sync and sort of wanting to experience their highs and lows,” said Jennifer Westfeldt in a recent Q and A; the “we” referring to her real-life love-interest Jon Hamm, also in the film. “There are a lot of variations on it, and we were hoping to show through eight characters very different perspectives and experiences in that transition.”
Hamm plays Ben, married to Missy (Kristen Wiig), while Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) round out the other couple who have recently popped out little ones. This pits Julie and Jason in an awkward situation, worried about seeing their friends in a completely new light and under ‘love-killing” circumstances.
Their foreboding premonitions come true and while both hear their biological clocks ticking, they each don’t want to sacrifice intimacy with each other for 3 am diaper fights and non-existent sex-drives. So they come up with a grand idea to have a baby together, share custody, and have all the perks of being a divorcee.
The spontaneous flow and fantastical world of non-marital responsibility begins on a high, much to the gawking and sardonic tone from the sleep-ridden Missy and Leslie. The quartet of Bridesmaids characters provides marginal cautionary tales, bumpers on a pinball machine that guide and jab into the metallic Jason and Julie game pieces.
For Westfeldt, these were “bumpers” crucial to the story’s success.
“In any indie film there’s always one moment when your dream cast becomes available at the same time and it happened last winter and it was either I step in and direct it or we would lose the cast.”
Alex and Leslie channel the change in their relationship not with animosity so much as a mutual understanding of their kid-driven
rage. Chris O’Dowd provides unique laughs to his domestic hobbies and Maya Rudolph settles into the maternal role expectedly, sometimes pushing the limits of their responsibilities, or lack thereof.
“I think they can get angry with each other one moment and love each other the next and that’s life,” said Westfeldt of Alex and Leslie.
Ben and Missy have a similar obstacle but have a tougher time working through it. Every friendly get-together dinner scene, one of the two leaves the table with hurt feelings or insensitive remarks. What was once a steaming and impassioned romance has quickly lost its thunder. It’s a marriage surviving through thick, not thin. It’s also another role for Hamm to play an inept counterpart to Wiig, as he did in Bridesmaids.
“There’s a whole other side to Kristin that many people haven’t gotten the opportunity to experience and she’s a phenomenally talented person,” said Hamm. “Whatever reason I keep getting cast as her douchey boyfriend- there are worse people to act opposite.”
Jason and Julie thus maintain their side of the bargain and find separate romances, making each other equally jealous. Jason’s gal (Megan Fox) is a sexy broadway dancer and Jason boasts frequently of their bedroom behavior. Julie’s guy (Edward Burns) is about as perfect as you can get: kind, charming, accepting, his only flaw may be that he’s too nice. But cracks remain, primarily, and you know where this is going, because Jason and Julie have confused feelings for each other.
“Men and women can’t be friends because the sex part always gets in the way,” muses Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally. Friends with Kids ventures down this often-tread route, offering some recognizable bumps as well. Westfeldt keeps her film brighter, though contemplated having a Graduate type ending.
“There’s a whole heaping of darkness and sadness in the story already, a lot more than in most romantic comedies, so it felt like it had to have a reason for being.”
The film does carry on with a darker tug, and some jokes make themselves known when the scene doesn’t warrant it- but you know a conversation is serious when a baby isn’t crying in the background or when Jason isn’t talking about breast sizes.
“There’s definitely a mixed tone. I wrote the first half of the film easy-breezy and then I put it in a drawer because I was probably nervous about how dark it had to go to make sense of this material,” said Westfeldt. “I don’t know if it’s just having more life experience about these issues we were dealing with, but it felt like the truth of the story had to be more painful and more difficult than basic romantic comedy genre tropes.”
To an extent, she’s right. It at least breaks through the sugarcoated appeals of films past, providing enough substance to consider both the rewards and damages of relationships. Amongst its sometimes crass, overstated quips, (Adam Scott returns to his Step Brothers arrogant form with his female philandering), Friends With Kids eventually injects its more meaningful questions. Regrettably, some of them may have been more meaningful left unanswered.