Friday, March 9, 2012

Friends With Kids

Best Buds Make Baby At Night: Stay Friends In The AM?

Adam Scott as Jason and Jennifer Westfeldt as Julie in Ms. Westfeldt's comedy-drama "Friends With Kids". 
Roadside Attractions


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, March 9
, 2012

There isn't a romantic comedy-drama that's been better in the last few years than Jennifer Westfeldt's poignant, funny and refreshingly adult film "Friends With Kids", an effecting movie with excellent performances, most notably from Adam Scott, Ms. Westfeldt, Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph.  The film, Ms. Westfeldt's excellent directing debut, opens today nationwide in the U.S and Canada.

Set in New York City over several years, "Friends With Kids" is a perfectly pitched ensemble drama that initially looks like a television sitcom.  Julie (Ms. Westfeldt) and Jason (Mr. Scott) are lifelong best friends.  They live in the same apartment building.  Their good friends, or, "Bridesmaids" buddies (Ms. Rudolph and Mr. O'Dowd; Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm) are married.  Both married couples have kids.  Being married and parents appears messy, tiring and stressful to late-thirtysomethings Julie and Jason.  Julie, whose biological clock is almost at midnight, wants a child without commitment, and, doing what best friends do, Jason proposes to assist.  Their married friends are incredulous, barely polite second-guessers of what they see as a cockamamie idea.

"Friends With Kids" essentially asks whether kids complicate friendships more than they do marriages, if at all.  If so, is it the kids who change things or is it the relationship couple growing older, or is it the natural evolution of a marital relationship -- or any romantic relationship -- that as it matures certain flowers and passions will die or diminish, while other new ones spring to life.  Do Julie and Jason truly want to be where their friends are?  Is the grass greener on the other side?  They get sneak previews from their friends but ignore their own reviews of the sneaks.  Julie and Jason date other people in the interim after the birth of their son, trying to eat their cake and keep it too.

Ms. Westfeldt delves into the emotional entanglements middle age, child-rearing and relationship changes between couples and friends with children inevitably bring.  Leveled with tension, raw emotion, insight and honesty, especially in the film's second half, "Friends With Kids" is written with a keen understanding of the complexities of everyday life and inherent challenges child-rearing brings in this new century, where the definition of family has expanded thanks in part to technology and how people live together. 

In her typically comedic and thought-provoking way Ms. Westfeldt, who wrote the terrific films "Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Ira & Abby", delves even deeper here in what is her most serious film.  Her direction is sharp, with scenes that percolate, especially one lasting a full ten minutes late on.  It's the best and most piercing ten minutes, wonderfully acted by all involved.  The laughter of the early parts of "Friends With Kids" dissipates and the customary lighthearted truth-bombs the writer-director delivers with pleasant smiles and cute snickers grow heavier, more truthful and devastating, with nary a smile to be seen. 

In letting scenes play out in real, authentic and unvarnished fashion, Ms. Westfeldt picks at raw nerves, exposing them and emotional pain and discomfort, diving in where many other romantic comedies and dramas fear to tread.  Full credit to her for delivering intelligent, credible adult situations to the big screen and investigating them boldly and sincerely.  Ms. Westfeldt has always tapped into male anxiety and inadequacy so well and hilariously, be it the boss who pines for her title character in "Kissing Jessica Stein", be it Ira, the neurotic lead character her Abby romances in "Ira & Abby", or, here, Jason, whose masculinity takes a few hits to the solar plexus.  By contrast the director's women are generally comfortable in their skins, and they don't slip on banana peels to get laughs.  They are funny, foolish, sharp and smart in a pure way.  (Ms. Westfeldt's Abby character is a perfect example.)

A throwback to the edgier, more provocative, searing sex comedy-dramas and family dramas of the 1960s ("Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice") and 70s ("Carnal Knowledge", "Kramer vs. Kramer"), "Friends With Kids" boasts a similar mix of adventure, adult risk-taking and hilarity.  The film also boasts a fine ensemble cast.  Two of its key players are Ed Burns as Kurt, a single man with whom Julie becomes romantically involved after giving birth, and Megan Fox as Mary Jane, a hard-working Broadway dancer Jason falls for.  Both are effective presences in a film that balances its well-rounded portrayals of commitments and friendships of varying degrees.

Kristen Wiig as Missy and Jon Hamm as Ben in Jennifer Westfeldt's comedy-drama "Friends With Kids".  Roadside Attractions

Ms. Westfeldt models characters who are well-meaning, fairy-tale dreamers: knowing yet somewhat naïve, smart but unafraid to dare to be reckless, carefree adventurers.  Her New York City men and women believe in doing things against type and convention, in other words: the hard way.  They make the best of the toughest situations, and in "Friends With Kids" we see that same endeavor, and warmth, underlying even the most cynical of motivations. 

Where many films exploit their onscreen kids and make parenting them mean-spirited -- "The Change-Up" (2011), a brutal, transparent comedy, explored the swapping of a single, commitment-free life for a married, parental one -- "Friends With Kids" makes its children natural, placed in everyday situations unblemished by theatrics.  Parenting is demanding but never expedient or horrifying.  Ms. Westfeldt's film is strongest when its adults challenge each other in real conversations about life.  These engagements, some funny, others not, are ripe with truth that is often brutal and unsweetened.  This is how adults talk, at least real adults in the real world, and many of the adults I know.

Whether or not you are a parent (and I am), "Friends With Kids" is a wholly relatable experience.  It will move you in potent and unexpected ways.  I've heard fellow film critics cry in the dark while watching this film, and sniffles will not be an unusual occurrence this weekend at your local multiplex.  The emotional power of "Friends With Kids" is genuine.  The film resists manipulation with such gimmicks as oh-so-syrupy-cute children to win over hearts and melt polar ice caps.  "Friends With Kids" travels in its own singular, forthright and daring way, and while there's predictability in some of the events Ms. Westfeldt's film is a thoroughly enjoyable and accurate chronicle of contemporary relationships and life dilemmas.  Ms. Westfeldt parodies domestic life with a breeziness and fun that is delightful.  In one funny scene Julie and Jason make child-rearing effortless as if gently mocking parenting.  Their friends have a WTF? moment witnessing it all.

Adam Scott is memorable here in comedic and dramatic scenes and his Jason, a snarky, cynical, insensitive sort, is the best work he's done on film.  While he resembles Tom Cruise, Mark Ruffalo and Ashton Kutcher, Mr. Scott's sharp features and intense expressions make him occasionally uncomfortable to observe on screen, specifically in this film, and because of these attributes his character's vulnerability is all the more palpable and profound.  Mr. Scott explores the most naked moments Jason has and executes each mark, nuance and evolution within so subtly and convincingly.  Ms. Westfeldt, with her smooth, striking and open features displays similar strengths, building an emotionally complex Julie, who effortlessly transforms from confident to crumbling in an instant.  Julie, a competent, well-contained person who poses unenviable "pick one" questions about death, is a full-blooded woman who deep down knows exactly what she wants.   

I enjoyed watching the director transform Julie into a mature, wise person who sees beyond a lot of things in life.  What's most impressive is that Ms. Westfeldt's skills as an actor -- she's been acting for years -- are even better here than in prior films she's only written, including her well-played Abby in "Ira & Abby".  Similarly Ms. Wiig demonstrates that her dramatic chops are sterling, and in her small but pivotal role her intensity and simmering contempt for her predicament resonates.  Mr. O'Dowd, a standout, adoringly plays a man-child teddy bear type, with comedic overtures punctuating his Alex character's I'm still 10-years-old-and-loving-it attitude.  Ms. Rudolph plays the fiddle of range so ably as Julie's closest female friend and confidante.  She is (as are a great many black actresses on film), the ready, sturdy advisor, a role she played to Ms. Wiig in "Bridesmaids", but here she gets to do more, namely put Mr. O'Dowd through his paces.

Of the many films I've seen so far this year, none have been better, or enthralled me more, or made me laugh more or hit me harder with a mix of pain and joy than "Friends With Kids".  Ms. Westfeldt flaunts a real comedy romance drama for grown-ups to sink their hearts, minds and teeth into, and even the most discriminating of audiences will not be let down.  "Friends With Kids" sharply and wittily assesses the challenges of 21st century families, delivering uproarious moments of comedy and raw honesty while maintaining a literate, adult focus on the harsh truths about the realities of relationships and responsibilities.

I loved and adored this film's passion, heart, humor and dead-on honesty.  I loved "Friends With Kids".  Underline, loved.

With: Lee Bryant, Kelly Bishop, Cotter Smith.

EXTRA: YouTube review of "Friends With Kids"

"Friends With Kids" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for sexual content and language.  The film's running time is one hour and 39 minutes.

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