“Friends with Kids,” the ensemble comedy and directorial debut of its America’s sweetheart-y star (and writer) Jennifer Westfelt, is an uncanny product of the post-feminist, nontraditional parenting culture. As such, it should be a noble comment on what an unmarried, career-minded woman can do in the realm of single parenting. Unfortunately, for all of the charm and acting prowess of its hefty cast, “Friends with Kids” feels too shortsighted and too wishful.
We enter the lives of six friends, notably Julie (Westfelt) and Jason (Adam Scott), the only two singletons left in their group, who have developed an eerily close, humor-driven codependent kinship. At dinner, when friends Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) announce their plans to have a baby, Julie and Jason find themselves confronting a similar impulse. After a four-year lapse, seeing their friends navigate the bickering, exhausting, contentious aspects of early parenting, they strive to dream up a way to raise a child happily without all of the unflattering marriage-y stuff. (They are two svelte and superficial Manhattanites, after all.) Of course, they’ve never been attracted to each other ever, and Jason is a womanizer and Julie is a commitment-phobe, so separate romances aren’t in the cards anytime soon. After many montages of red-wine swilling and Central Park-jogging and discussing every aspect of their baby strategy, Julie and Jason decide to get pregnant together, and raise the child, co-parenting, only as friends. And you can see exactly where this is going.
Enlisting the help of some of today’s best comedic (and otherwise skilled) actors, including Jon Hamm (of “Mad Men”) and Kristen Wiig (who plays Hamm’s unhappy wife, Missy), among rising stars like Scott and O’Dowd, seems like a safe measure to make sure all of the jokes go off without a hitch — and, for the most part, they do, with cringe-inducing worn-in relationship humor serving as an endless centerpiece. Except, curiously, comedy talents like Hamm and Wiig (especially) play totally straight, which manages to handicap the mood perhaps more than needed. (I’m always game for a brilliant comedian playing straight, but Wiig perhaps needs a character of more prominence than a quietly depressed, drunken waif.) The portrayals of relationship bitterness, however accurate, come across as freshly as a slap to the face — this is not your average feel-good rom-com.
It is, however, very much a New York movie, complete with jokes about Brooklyn parenting cults, Christmas scenes in Manhattan, and “Seinfeld”-ian successful-but-emotionally-stunted inhabitants. If you’re a sucker for any of these tropes, then this will make a great date picture or future holiday season selection. But if you’re looking for a more mature version of the charmingly awkward, uptight, out-of-sorts heroine of Westfelt’s previous gems like “Kissing Jessica Stein,” but with more current-day commentary (the homosexuality issue of the early aughts is today’s reproductive rights debate), then you’ll likely enjoy what “Friends with Kids” has to offer. That is, until its abruptly saccharine smack of an ending, which undermines a lot of the wit and realism a female-driven comedy, like this one, could benefit from.