Starts well but lacks bottle to break away from convention
Sometimes, Hollywood feels like the entertainment wing of the conservative family values lobby. Endless romantic dramas and comedies about marriage and raising children are enough to make the happily unwed and blissfully child-free feel persecuted in the multiplexes. So when a film comes along that promises to take a slightly different perspective, it's hard to suppress a whoop of joy.
The semi- autobiographical Friends with Kids is directed, written by and stars Jennifer Westfeldt, who's still best known for the 2001 comedy Kissing Jessica Stein. She's been in a child-free relationship with Mad Men star John Hamm for the last 15 years, during which they were both alarmed to observe friends changing and disappearing from their lives after having children. Keeping it in the non-nuclear family, Westfeldt wrote a script inspired by these experiences, while Hamm brought on board three of his chums from last year's big comedy hit, Bridesmaids: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd.
Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are the last singletons standing in their upmarket Manhattan social circle. These BFFs have plenty in common but they don't fancy one another. Absolutely not.
We meet their coupled-up pals at a restaurant gathering. Ben (Hamm) and Missy (Wiig) are so hot for one another that they just can't stop having sex. Alex (O'Dowd) and Leslie (Rudolph) are equally glowing. But they've got a different reason. "We're pregnant!" they announce. The couple are quick to reassure their pals that they're not going to turn into those awful parents like the ones at the next table, who are seemingly oblivious to the chaos their misbehaving brats are causing.
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Cue that ominous "Four Years Later" caption. Restaurant visits are a thing of the past. Alex and Leslie host a dinner party at their apartment, where they live in child-centred chaos, shouting at each other over the top of their screaming nipper. Short- tempered Ben and Missy have also reproduced and are reduced to bickering and sniping. Fleeing this disaster zone, Julie and Jason wind up at a bar. "We don't know those people," he observes. "Those people are mean and angry."
Up to this point, Friends With Kids is sharp, funny and very well-observed. Then Westfeldt introduces the ill-advised twist. Alex and Leslie both want to have children. But they're eager to avoid what's happened to their friends. So they make a deal to have a kid together, split the child-care 50/50, and carry on seeing other people. At first the arrangement works surprisingly well. He cops off with actress and bedroom acrobat Mary Jane (Jessica Alba), while she finds caring, well-endowed Mr Perfect in the form of Kurt (Edward Burns). But then… well, if you've seen Friends with Benefits, you'll know exactly what happens next. For this is yet another of those films that promises a mildly transgressive take on relationships but then snaps back into conformity.
Fortunately, there's still plenty to enjoy. The ensemble cast work well together and are completely convincing as old friends comfortable in one another's company – largely because that's exactly what they are.
Westfeldt's raunchy script, which comes across like something Nora (When Harry Met Sally) Ephron might have produced while consulting a dictionary of expletives, delivers plenty of laughs as well as a splendidly caustic ski lodge showdown. If only she'd had the courage of her convictions.