'Friends With' Benefits From Its Complications

Mar 8, 2012

The premise of Friends with Kids is the stuff of high-concept romantic comedies: Writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt plays Julie, who's at the age when her odds of childbearing lessen each year, and there's no mate in sight. So her best friend, Jason, played by Adam Scott, volunteers to impregnate her.

The two are pals, confidants — and not, he reminds her, attracted to each other. They could share custody of the child and avoid the chaos, hostility and cessation of sex that's descended upon their married friends with kids. "Get to it, pop one out quickly, and start looking for your guy!" Jason says.

If he's right, and it's a stress-free solution, then there's no movie, so you know he'll be wrong — and that maybe there's more between him and Julie than he thinks.

Maybe. It's not a given. Friends with Kids doesn't play like a rom-com or one of those "dramedies" — I hate that word — that give you laughs, a little cry and the occasional shiver of recognition. It has a nervous rhythm and terrific tension, as if the characters' backs are against the wall and the clock is ticking down.

Westfeldt, who's 42, belongs to a generation and class of people for whom nothing about having kids is easy. Not having them creates anxiety. Having them means opening yourself up to more psychodrama. Friends with Kids is funny — but the laughs are tinged with sadness and even cruelty. It's a terrific depiction of How We Breed Now.

It's also an ensemble film in which two other couples loom large, and the four actors who play them are fresh from the smash comedy Bridesmaids, which makes their edginess surprising. Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm are Ben and Missy, who have a son and barely speak to each other. Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd are Leslie and Alex, who have a boy and girl, and live in Brooklyn in slobby disarray.

There's an extra element of tension when actors who can be wonderful clowns don't cut loose. O'Dowd's "what me worry" vibe sets off Rudolph's bossiness; Hamm's Ben looks bleary and for much of the film stays silent — until he opens his mouth and poisoned toads leap out. Wiig's Missy seethes and avoids his eyes. The camera catches every conspiratorial or hostile glance, every flash of devastation or rage being quietly suppressed.

Two other characters raise the stakes. After Julie's baby is born, Jason takes up with Mary Jane, an actress and dancer played by no less than Megan Fox. Julie meets a soft-eyed, tender hunk played by Edward Burns. So both our attractive but relatively ordinary-looking protagonists have trophy mates — and on vacation in a cabin, with all eight major characters plus kids, the conversation between Jason and Julie over where their toddler sleeps gets weird. Each claims their lovemaking is just too loud.

Megan Fox, for the record, can act. Her Mary Jane is unaffected, secure in her beauty, uninterested in kids or being tied down or anything other than her eight performances a week.

Westfeldt isn't upstaged; her performance is beautifully modulated, Julie's natural buoyancy weighed down by her fear of showing her true feelings.

But the revelation of Friends with Kids is Adam Scott, who often plays obnoxious squirts. Here, he eases back on caricature but takes nothing off his fastball, recalling the young Alan Alda, who also came on glib and finished vulnerable. Just like this marvelous movie.

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