"What to Expect When You're Expecting"is essentially the Hallmark card version of the sage, saucy and very specific how-to bestseller by Heidi Murkoff. The movie's sentimental squibs on pregnancy merely skim the surface scratched so thoroughly by the book.
As Murkoff knew and mined so well, there is a lot of nature-made comedy to be found in the discomforts of distended bodies, raging hormones and altered relationships. There is also pathos and pain, especially for couples who can't conceive. The movie, directed by Kirk Jones ("Nanny McPhee") from a screenplay by Shauna Cross ("Whip It") and Heather Hach ("Freaky Friday"), has grand ambitions and has signed on a cast of thousands (only a slight exaggeration) to try to touch all those bases.
But rather than the engaging enlightenment of the source, the film becomes bloated by confusion. It opens by parachuting into the lives of five couples in various states of impending parenthood, then drops in on a "Dudes Group" of four already-entrenched dads and the cool guy who keeps turning up to remind the fathers of what they're missing. Running around the edges are countless tykes, none of whom are even slightly memorable despite their extreme cuteness.
A considerable amount of star power gets expended in spinning out the complex coupling stories. There's Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison, a television fitness guru and a dancer, respectively, who meet on a "Dancing With the Stars"-type show and end up with a bun in the oven.
Then there's Elizabeth Banks as a militant mommy wannabe who runs a bookstore on all things baby and breast feeding; she and her hubby-with-daddy issues is Ben Falcone, and they're struggling to conceive. Playing Falcone's moneybags father is Dennis Quaid, who has a trophy wife in Brooklyn Decker, who, guess what, winds up pregnant with twins.
If that's not enough to keep track of, Jennifer Lopez plays a photographer, and she's hoping to adopt a child from Africa with her mate, the handsome Rodrigo Santoro (who knows what he does, and who cares?). Meanwhile, Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford are former high school flames, now food-truck competitors, suddenly dealing with a one-night stand shocker.
It goes on. Leading the post-pregnancy flank is Chris Rock, who runs the daddy "Dudes Group" that includes Tom Lennon, Rob Huebel, Amir Talai and a ton of little kids. If that weren't enough to keep up with there is Joe Manganiello, enviable for his zero body fat and zero responsibilities.
Mentioning actual characters' names would only further confuse things. Let's just say the filmmakers should have considered bringing on someone from ESPN's"SportsCenter" to give us the play by play.
As a filmmaker, Jones seems to favor what-makes-people-tick tales — his best was his first, 1998's "Waking Ned Devine." "What to Expect" has moments that reach the emotional resonance and clever irony of "Ned's" fanciful fable about greed, avarice and the untimely demise of a lottery winner. But more often, the ensemble comedy with its many entanglements flounders badly.
Lopez and Santoro give their adopting couple a nice balance of sizzle and sadness, almost enough to produce a few tears. Decker milks the most comedy out of the fewest lines, underplaying her hand perfectly as she dotes on her older stepson (Falcone), scolds her much older hubby and embraces her daughter-in-law (Banks).
Speaking of which, Banks, who brings such a stinging wit as Alec Baldwin's character's Type-A fiancée on"30 Rock," seems adrift here, and cute couple Kendrick and Crawford are completely lost at sea. But the guys in the Dudes Group have the worst of it — they are a whiny, unappealing bunch through and through.