Thursday, 31 May 2012
FILM REVIEW: FRIENDS WITH KIDS
Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are two smart, funny, 30-something single (but not for lack of trying) New Yorkers. Best buds since college (he calls her 'doll' instead of 'mate'), they live in the same apartment building, hang out like buddies do, and discuss each others' love lives openly; sometimes over the phone while their latest partner sleeps beside them.
But after a disastrous birthday for Adam, hosted by their friends with kids, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd), and attended by fellow newly-parented marrieds, Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm), he and Julie head to a bar and take solace in alcohol and the fact that they aren't living their friends' lives.
Several drinks later, and Julie and Adam have theorized that child-rearing would be so less complicated if you had a child with a non-romantic partner: sharing custody of the child with that person but all the while free to pursue the actual love of your life. It sounds so simple that even when the alcohol wears off the pair decide to do it -- have a child together, that is (which if course means they have to do it).
Friends With Kids, written and directed by Westfeldt, is an above average romantic comedy which uses that same, well-oiled construct to present some rather radical ideas -- if not in the greater world then certainly in mainstream American filmmaking -- about the notions of family and parenting.
In comparison to their friends' "traditional" families, Jason's and Julie's set-up -- shared custody of a baby boy, separate apartments and active dating lives -- works like a dream.
Missy and Ben's marriage follows the expected trajectory of full-on passion followed by kids. But when the good times turn tough, rather than sustain them their marriage implodes. It is Ben who is most offended -- or perhaps jealous -- of Julie's and Jason's friction-free arrangement. (Note: Wiig and Hamm are only minor players in the film, there perhaps, as a favour to the director or to help bolster the budget.)
On the other hand, Leslie and Alex's relationship is chaotic, argumentative and mundane, and not the least bit desirable. But Leslie and Alex (Rudolph and O'Dowd steal a lot of the film) genuinely love each other, and theirs is perhaps the most recognisable form of family.
And while Adam and Julie's arrangement, which works almost perfectly, would seem to be an idyll, there are thousands of people in the real world making shared custody and alternative parenting (two mums, one dad and vice versa) situations work.
Westfeldt's screenplay may not be as nimble as Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010), which managed to be comic and political in equal measure but without striving for effect, but its heart is in the right place. There is one scene where Jason, in rebuke to Ben's cynicism, defends both their arrangement and his love for Julie and we wish we could all be so lucky to have someone -- anyone -- care for us that much.
But as Westefeldt's film is written a rom-com, love must rear its ugly head. And my main quibble with Friends With Kids, like most rom-coms which attempt to invert the paradigm and reverse the gender roles, is that it is always the female character who capitulates; the first to decide she wants more from the man than what is being offered. But as always, it's not until the man reaches that same decision that a happy ever after is assured.
And that ending is never in doubt: the film ultimately yielding to the rom-com conventions. But Friends With Kids manages to have more on its mind, and provide more laughs than any Hollywood rom-com this year, or even well back into 2011. See it with someone you love but wouldn't marry.