A new romcom really wants to be something other than another romcom and almost succeeds

Friends With Kids

Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt

Opens March 9 at the Charles Theatre

Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) seem to have surmounted the whole can-men-and-women-really-be-friends thing. Platonic BFFs, they live in the same Manhattan apartment building and share the same active but ephemeral dating lives—in the somewhat disorienting opening scene, they call each other late at night to dish while in bed with other people. And they go out as a de facto couple with their actual coupled-up friends, hot-and-heavy Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, respectively) and sweet, domestic Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd, ditto). It’s all very simpatico yuppies-in-the-city good times until the actual couples start reproducing. For a long time after that every child that shows up onscreen is screaming and every parent is sniping at the other.

Since Friends With Kids is a romantic comedy, Jason responds by spawning a high-concept plan: Skip the whole marriage/commitment/too-tired-or-bored-for-sex thing, have a baby with Julie platonic-BFF-style, share the parenting and split the expenses the way one might divvy up costs on a ski vacation, and keep on living single until the right other people come along. Voilà, all the benefits of parenthood with none of the supposed drawbacks. In a line you know will show up in the trailer (and it does), Jason vows to be “100 percent committed half the time.” Of course, this being a romantic comedy, you also know from the outset that it isn’t going to be as easy as that. (Although it turns out to be easier than maybe it oughta be.)

Westfeldt not only stars, she wrote and directed as well as co-produced with longtime non-platonic BFF Hamm. Not only do her ambitions reveal themselves in her number of titles, they show up in her obvious attempts to make a romantic comedy with an actual brain and something like an actual heart, and she does so many things right. Her script zips along with all manner of zingers and gimlet insights: Jason disses a first date because she “over French-pronounces French words,” which is both a) funny and b) revealing about Jason’s callowness. The scene in which Jason and Julie, you know, have sex so they can have a baby plays with convincing awkwardness (“May I approach the bench?”).

Not only are the jokes sharp-elbowed, so is the way the couples and friends fight, drawing the kind of blood that actual people who know each other well can. And while the central focus remains Jason and Julie’s struggle to come to grips with changes in their relationship as friends and parents when “other people” (Megan Fox and Edward Burns, respectively) do enter the picture, Friends With Kids also offers some clear-eyed comedy/drama derived from the effect on Ben and Missy and Leslie and Alex. The non-platonic couples must deal not only with the stresses of being married with children, they also have to face and deal with what is, in effect, Jason and Julie’s attempt to not wind up like them.

Westfeldt’s biggest coup is the cast. Invaluable comedy utility player Scott holds down the leading-man spot in admirable fashion, channeling the right mix of rakish charm and immature weasellyness. Rudolph and O’Dowd create an actual relationship out of typical best-friend roles, filling out the lines with great unspoken business (e.g. after peeing, he unthinkingly wipes his hands on her sweater). Wiig isn’t given much to do, but if nothing else, Hamm proves he does a great glassy-eyed just-had-sex-in-a-restaurant-bathroom face. Unlike the rest, Fox comes off a bit like an artificial life form, but then again that’s kind of who she is here: the superhot professional dancer who whips Jason at a first-person-shooter game on Xbox while wearing nothing but his dress shirt.

Indeed Friends With Kids can’t escape its ultimately formulaic essence, despite valiant attempts to avoid the same-old same old. The script creates a story arc for Jason and Julie that will probably resonate at least a little with anyone who’s ever had a best friend who can’t quite become more, no matter how awesome and/or convenient it’d be. And yet for every hard-earned relationship truth nailed, for every would-be real-talk “vagina”-studded joke (Friends With Kids is rated R), there’s an outbreak of anonymous jaunty romcom indie-pop, the kind that seems torn off the roll by the foot, like paper towels. The romcom cake/eat it quandary throughout culminates in the ending, which is both entirely predictable and a strange, maladroit misfire. Most unfortunate of all, Westfeldt the actress is the weakest link in Westfeldt the writer/director’s cast; she just doesn’t stand up to the crack romcom pros with whom she’s surrounded herself. Really close, but not enough.

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