It’s a law of nature that every generation believes they bring unprecedented insight to the balancing act of child rearing and marriage. Far less certain is whether, in the second decade of the third millennium, there’s anything new to say about the whole affair.
Jennifer Westfeldt tries to get a fresh slant on the matter in her ensemble comedy “Friends With Kids.” The mildly engaging, often exasperating feature poses a few good questions and offers some well-observed moments. Yet even as it zeros in on radical shifts in the mechanics and mores of parenthood, it sits quite comfortably in a well-worn romantic-comedy groove.
The central couple, thirtysomething Manhattanites played by Westfeldt and Adam Scott, are not really a couple. They’re best friends who share late-night phone chats while their respective dates lie sleeping next to them. Jason and Julie are in sync in every way — except for the minor detail that, as he declares repeatedly (to her increasing distress), there’s no sexual chemistry between them.
Warily observing the growing fault lines in the marriages of their friends with kids, they hit on the idea of having a child together and skipping the whole marriage thing, thereby avoiding the whole marriage-falling-apart thing.
Westfeldt’s screenplay reaches for the rat-a-tat-tat of screwball. Occasionally she achieves it, thanks to a gifted cast that includes Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd and the filmmaker’s real-life partner, Jon Hamm. But the interactions can also feel forced. Infant diarrhea and fraught nerves notwithstanding, these are seamless lives, where babies are rite-of-passage accessories.
The biggest problem, though, is that for all the daring of Jason and Julie’s social experiment, essentially they’re just another rom-com couple, oh so crazily complicating their path to that longed-for clinch.
Their friends are far more compelling characters, in their resilience (Rudolph and O’Dowd) and their unraveling (Hamm and Wiig). The strongest scene is a quietly explosive confrontation among the six friends, gathered around a vacation-house dinner table.
Also present are the new love interests of Jason and Julie, refreshingly non-caricatured: Mary Jane (Megan Fox), who’s clear-eyed, independent and unapologetic about not wanting children, and the exceedingly decent Kurt (Edward Burns), whose questions about Julie and Jason’s arrangement spark a discussion that lays bare resentments and expectations.
Westfeldt (in her first stint in the director’s chair after writing/producing “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Ira & Abby”) gives her actors the room to reveal plenty about their characters in a way that’s subtle, even when the movie is crude. And it frequently is, because she inexplicably succumbs to the new-school raunch of Hollywood’s male-centric comedies.
It feels especially wrong for Julie, whose vulnerability Westfeldt expresses in her every gesture. Her performance is sweet but frustratingly weightless; when she should be gutsy, Julie is too often pathetic, and when she can’t engage the male gaze, she somehow adopts it.
Scott, known for his dorky nice guy on TV’s “Parks and Recreation,” has played memorable misanthropes in indie features (“Passenger Side,” “The Vicious Kind”). Here he’s asked to portray something in between, and is reliably good in a problematic role. Jason veers between emotional alertness and jerk-sterism in a way that suits the needs of the story but isn’t really convincing.
In the film’s final moments he has to put across a monologue that’s mercifully brief but rather long on the cheese factor. That closing scene, intended to be a great, uplifting Molly Bloom of a climactic yes, is more a dispiriting whatever.