The recent trend of comedies centered on experimental relationships continues with “Friends with Kids,” which explores what happens when longtime best friends who both want kids decide to have a baby to avoid the complications raising children has on romantic relationships. It seems like a Hollywood-typical setup, but writer, director and star Jennifer Westfeldt (“Kissing Jessica Stein”) gives it a genuine treatment that steers clear of the farcical direction these comedies so easily (and often) give in to.
Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) have been best friends since college who are happily single. Their other college friends, played by the “Bridesmaids” crew of Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, are married and most recently, having kids. Over time, they observe the toll having kids has taken on their friends relationships, and decide the want to avoid that at all costs. Together, they conceive their plan to raise a child under joint custody and continue to pursue romantic relationships with other people.
At first, this concept is a tough sell. The chemistry between Westfeldt and Scott is palpable enough that you don’t believe it when they say they’re not attracted to one another. And maybe there’s a lingering sense that Westfeldt wanted this to be obvious as if to say they’re forcing themselves to pretend not to have feelings for one another, but it still doesn’t feel like it makes sense. After little Joe is born, however, the situation starts to feel possible and even real.
Westfeldt is savvy enough of a writer to recognize that these experimental relationship comedies — be they friends with benefits or some other arrangement — all have an obvious trajectory: the main characters realize they have feelings for each other and fall in love. Rather than mess with this inevitability, she embraces it, but at the same time lets it happen in a more authentic fashion, largely due to the well-rounded nature of her characters.
The character she plays, Julie, has a certain humility and a soft-spoken nature and while she’s emotional, it’s not in some cliché, up-and-down manner that we generally get from main female leads in these situations. Scott is supposed to be more of the comedian; Jason can’t stay in a relationship more than a few months and lacks the ability to restrain the dirty thoughts in his head from leaking out his mouth, even in the worst settings. At the same time, he’s not a jerk, but rather honest and caring.
To further explore whether this experiment can work, Westfeldt uses the couples played by Rudolph and O’Down and Hamm and Wiig as comparison points. Rudolph and O’Dowd’s Leslie and Alex have lost their intimacy as a result of kids and Hamm and Wiig’s Ben and Missy become increasingly frustrated with each other. Then, Westfeldt has all these characters judging and commenting on each other. In doing so, she successfully communicates the idea that there’s no easy or perfect way to raise a child, that no one’s necessarily wrong.
Edward Burns and Megan Fox, who play the love interests of Julie and Jason post-having a baby, also add a whole other layer of perspective to the situation. Even if it this arrangement works for Julie and Jason, how does it effect the people they date? None of the characters in the film are superfluous or unnecessary, they all offer some insight into the story; even the brief appearances by Julie and Jason’s parents bring something to the conversation.
As sincere a vision a Westfeldt tells her story with, however, not even she can completely write around the predictability of her story, and at times the plot pulls in that fated direction too quickly and some elements feel rushed away or overlooked. Fortunately, our attachment to and the likability of Jason and Julie help to push through what we might be more skeptical of in a lesser Hollywood comedy.
“Friends with Kids” will likely come as close to a legitimate imagining of what happens when people try these non-conforming relationships as we’re ever likely to get. It’s warm, naturally humorous and unafraid to delve into more serious, dramatic territory, and it has the the cast capable of such versatility, a fact that should not be understated when you consider most of them are known for being comedy actors.
As for Westfeldt, she might not be a prolific filmmaker like her biggest inspiration, Woody Allen, but when she has something, she delivers. “Friends with Kids” is something that will resonate with people who closely identify with the characters, who see themselves in or having done that “everyone’s married and having babies” phase of life. Everyone else could still learn a thing or two and be entertained as well.
Friends with Kids
Written and Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt
Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig