September 11, 2011

Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut Friends with Kids shares some key qualities with her 2001 film Kissing Jessica Stein (which she wrote).  Both films are funny, harmless comedies that take an emotionally satisfying and challenging conceit before scampering back to the status quo.  Westfeldt puts an interesting twist on the parenting-and-marriage sub-genre by rethinking conventional notions of fidelity.  She even goes so far as to examine why the convention exists in the first place.  But ultimately her movie becomes lethargic, predictable, and bland despite the Westfeldts’ strong chemistry with co-star Adam Scott.

Best friends Jason (Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt) are the oblivious single people without kids who don’t understand why their friends are having such a hard time with the marriage and children thing.  They see the stress of couples Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), and think they can do better.  Julie and Jason both want kids, but they don’t want to be married and they don’t want to be divorced.  They decide the best course of action is to have the kid, share custody, and date whoever they want.  Initially, the plan works like gangbusters and Jason and Julie seem to have found the secret every unhappily married couple has missed, but, to the surprise of no one, deeper feelings begin to surface.

Kissing Jessica Stein was a film I adored until it imploded in its final scene.  Its return to a safe but unbelievable conclusion was sudden and unwelcome.  By comparison, Friends with Kids taunts the audience that it’s going to come to the mainstream-approved ending unworthy of the premise Westfeldt establishes.  The film doesn’t waste much time getting to Jason and Julie’s unusual family arrangement and it’s a promising start.  Westfeldt has the brass to ask the viewer if monogamy is necessary for a happy family if both parties agree to an open relationship, but over the course of the story she answers her question in a disappointing and drawn out fashion.

The ride is downhill but Westfeldt manages to make it a pleasant slide.  She’s got a great comic ensemble at her disposal and they give the picture its pulse.  Along with this summer’s Bridesmaids, O’Dowd continues to impress the only underutilized player is Wiig who only has enough room to drink and glare angrily at Jon Hamm.  The story truly rests on the shoulders of Westfeldt and Scott and they keep the film afloat even when the plot and maudlin sentiment have almost drowned it.  Their comic, dramatic, and romantic chemistry is superb and without being obvious or obnoxious they sell the idea their love is just as deep if not deeper than anyone who has a marriage certificate and a closed-relationship.

But the writing, the plotting, and the pacing grow more tired as the film wears on.  There’s only so many vulgar jokes and well-timed quips you can use before the potential is all dried up.  Friends with Kids starts out energetic and promising, sinks into a comfortable, enjoyable, and inoffensive second act, and then overloads on big declarations of love before giving up completely and having Jason tell the audience the disappointing conclusion to Westfeldt’s interesting thesis about love, marriage, parenthood, and fidelity.

Rating: C

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:

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