For a while, Friends with Kids is a breath of fresh air, a movie that offers a satirical look at fashionable New Yorkers as sharp in its depiction of low-level intimate conflict as a really good old New Yorker cartoon.
It follows three couples. Two are married and have small children. They have decamped to Brooklyn and use their kids as the guilt card to force the third couple, Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott), to take the $70 cab ride from Manhattan to visit them. Julie and Jason are a couple in every way except romantically: They have been the closest of friends since college, but as she approaches 40 and he despairs of ever finding “my person,” they decide to conceive and raise a baby together.
Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd are the down-to-earth marrieds, Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig the chic and sexy ones. What they have in common is squabbling, and short tempers, and a sense of being overwhelmed. Julie and Jason arrive at the down-to-earth Brooklyn apartment for his birthday party only to find the house in chaos, nothing ready, and a barely suppressed marital explosion in the offing. O’Dowd (who played the incredibly charming cop in Bridesmaids, which featured Wiig, Rudolph, and Hamm as well) retreats from the demanding Rudolph to the bathroom with a beer and his computer—and then complains about having to do everything. When the time comes to cut the cake, Rudolph has her head propped up on her elbow, and is snoring.
This is all clever, and funny, and true—and inventively done by Westfeldt. She starred in two previous films she wrote, Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira and Abby, but in Friends with Kids she takes the reins as writer and director, and proves herself a pretty snappy one.
The same cannot be said of her performance, however, and this is where Friends with Kids begins to go off the rails. Tight of face, and with a voice simultaneously breathy and nasal, Westfeldt does not naturally hold the screen as a romantic comedy lead. She was terrific in Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira and Abby—in the first she played a self-defeating perfectionist, in the second a hyper-empathic busybody—but here she’s playing Meg Ryan, and cute is one thing Westfeldt is not. She needs a sharp, defined character to play and she hasn’t written one for herself.
Julie is supposed to be winsome and wise, but the movie’s plot makes any rational viewer question those qualities. She and Jason see the pressure children place on a marriage and think they can circumvent it by simply avoiding being sexually intimate or sharing quarters with the mother or father of your child.
It’s hard not to sympathize when other people point out that having a child, who won’t understand the setup when he’s old enough to ask questions, with someone you don’t live with and who doesn’t love you is (let us say) ill-conceived. Jon Hamm, Westfeldt’s real-life boyfriend, has a corker of a drunken monologue in which he lets loose at the two of them, and the speech is so good the movie can never get its slick romantic comedy vibe back.
Jason is an equally problematic character. He is supposed to be smart, and kind, and thoughtful, but as he nears 40, he has absurdly adolescent ideas about sex and love—boorish notions that do not make sense coming from the mouth of this most sensitive of sensitive New Age guys.
The brilliant twist of Kissing Jessica Stein comes when the unlucky-in-love title character goes gay, only to discover she has all the same problems as a lesbian she had as a heterosexual. At the equally clever climax of Ira and Abby, Westfeldt has the two over-therapized title characters gather all their shrinks in one room so they can figure out that all the advice they’re getting is ruining them. But the final third of Friends with Kids is a head-scratching misfire. Westfeldt never finds a way to get Jason and Julie on a course that makes any rational sense and, instead, has them doing ever more unbelievable things to and with each other.
Jennifer Westfeldt and Jon Hamm are famously unmarried and say they intend to stay that way. Perhaps her willingness to live in a kind of unresolved stasis made it impossible for her to find a resolution for Julie and Jason. In the end, Friends with Kids shines on the margins, but is a black hole at its center.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.