29 June 2012


Here's the second film I've reviewed this week that has something of a connection to Bridesmaids- it's another romantic comedy, yes, but this one actually has a big chunk of that film's cast to its name. Kristen Wiig, Chris O'Dowd, Maya Rudolph and Jon Hamm all appear in Friends with Kids, in a supporting capacity, though it's more of an ensemble piece than a disjointed anthology, like New Year's Eve or What To Expect When You're Expecting.

The set-up is not unprecedented in the genre- Jason and Julie are both single, and despite being best mates for years, their relationship has never been anything more than platonic. They're each guilty of being a little judgemental towards their married friends, Leslie and Alex, and Ben and Missy, which has put them off taking the plunge with other partners. They decide, quite cynically, that the best thing to do would be to skip marriage, and falling in love, and just have a kid together, so that they can share parenting duties and go on looking for their real soulmates.

There's nothing particularly wrong with formula in genre, and aside from horror, the modern romcom might be the most formulaic of them all. Boy meets girl; they like each other; there's a misunderstanding that pulls them apart, despite the fact that it wouldn't be a real problem if they just talked about it; insert mad dash to the airport and last minute declaration of eternal love, and you're home. That's not always the case, but it's the broadest template- the mistake that most mainstream romcoms tend to make is that you don't really care about the central couple.

It's a relief when something like Friends with Kids comes along, because, yes, it is formulaic, but it's also more than mechanical genre fluff. With the archness of both Jason and Julie's characters, there could have been an unlikeability that swung too far into one extreme or the other- either the crass, meta-emotional awfulness of a Katherine Heigl vehicle, or the unconsidered wallowing of a mumblecore flick. Instead, Jennifer Westfeldt does a good job of marshalling her own performance, and that of Adam Scott, to really sell the best friends angle.

As much as we suspect that true love might intervene, Westfeldt recognises, as both writer and director, that it won't work at all if the pair seem even remotely sexually attracted to one another from the get-go, and building a believable friendship is what carries the film for much of its duration. This leaves each of them free to pursue gendered ideas of the ideal partner- Julie goes for Edward Burns' handsome, dependable and responsible adult, while Jason, of course, goes after Megan Fox. To damn with faint praise, Fox is better here than she ever has been, and both she and Burns are well served by characters who might otherwise have been written in as plot devices for some second-act misunderstanding.

Instead, the drama arises from real conflicts of interest, and the whole thing seems much more natural. The other couples lend to this feeling, and I particularly liked the pairing of Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph, whose characters go from being excited to exasperated in their own experiences of parenthood. Their chemistry isn't necessarily always affectionate all of the time, which really conveys some of those stresses. Elsewhere, Kristen Wiig is decidedly unfunny, in the best way, and you really sympathise with her struggles with Jon Hamm's character. After Bridesmaids, the pair seem to be making their film careers off of roles where he acts like an arsehole towards her.

Friends with Kids doesn't have the crowd-pleasing quality that Bridesmaids apparently had, (I maintain that the film was grossly overrated) but its canny script succeeds in presenting unusual situations usually, and making what feels like a funny, but real representation of the complex balance between parenthood and partnership. Admittedly, Westfeldt's script doesn't quite stick the landing, but it keeps up the bare minimum of suspense required for it to explore its interesting premise without getting too predictable.

Friends with Kids is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Friends with Kids, why not share your comments below? How is it that all it took for Megan Fox to be sort of relegated to these independent movies is calling Michael Bay "Hitler"? It seems like everyone has kind of forgotten her...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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