You could be forgiven for thinking that Friends With Kids is an unofficial sequel to Bridesmaids. After all, half the cast of last summer’s comedy hit wound up in this film, and those actors have been understandably put front and center in the new movie’s poster and TV spots. Don’t be misled. Though this comedy isn’t short on laughs, it’s a separate, fully integrated piece of work with a sharp, intellectual New York sensibility all its own. It’s not flawless, but it’s almost as good as Bridesmaids, and that’s high praise.
Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt star as Jason and Julie, two single New Yorkers in their late 30s who have been platonic best friends since college and live in the same Manhattan apartment building. Julie wants a baby while she can still have one, but she and Jason are both rattled when they attend a party with their college pals Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) and Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd), two married couples who spend the evening screaming at each other and their kids. The fiasco gives Jason and Julie such an unpleasant impression of married life that they take a radical measure, deciding to have a child together without becoming romantically involved.
Westfeldt is writer and director here as well. You may remember her starring in the Jewish lesbian romantic comedy Kissing Jessica Stein 10 springs ago, which for a while made her more famous than Hamm, her longtime real-life boyfriend. This is her second film in the director’s chair (after her 2006 comedy Ira & Abby), and she has evolved into a filmmaker to be reckoned with. The visual polish complements the fluidity of her storytelling while also capturing the atmosphere of this well-heeled corner of New York that the characters inhabit. Better still, she expertly delineates the ripples that Jason and Julie’s decision make among their friends, who are varying degrees of shocked and even angry that this couple’s unconventional arrangement might be working. A few jokes about poop and Kegel exercises aside, the wit here is urbane and refined. You could fill Yankee Stadium with the filmmakers who’ve styled themselves after Woody Allen, but Westfeldt seems more like his spiritual heir than any of them.
[pullquote_right]The comedy’s strengths make its shortcomings worth mulling over.[/pullquote_right] Another quality she shares with Allen is her ability to cast and direct other actors. The finely tuned ensemble includes Edward Burns as a divorced dad who dates Julie, and Megan Fox as a Broadway dancer who dates Jason. When Fox is making solid contributions, as she does here, you know things are firing on all cylinders. The real revelation is Scott, a pretty, boyish actor whose crack sense of comic timing has been showcased on TV (Parks & Recreation, Party Down) but has never received its due in films. He seizes the lead role, showing the deeper emotions at work underneath Jason’s snarky frat-boy exterior. This is particularly clear during the movie’s highlight, a great, uncomfortable dinner party sequence that draws out everyone’s true feelings about Jason and Julie’s situation, with Jason rising to an impassioned defense against Ben’s ugly full-on assault, provoking Ben into going out of his way to utterly humiliate his own wife and blowing up their marriage.
This is all fantastic, but Westfeldt can’t think of a creative resolution to all the issues in this unorthodox setup. Weirdly, the movie suffers from the exact opposite of the problem that marred Kissing Jessica Stein. While the latter pointed toward a straightforward romantic ending and then needlessly fiddled with it, this one builds toward a complex accommodation, only to wave it away with a conventional ending (albeit with a hilarious last line). I wish I could swap the conclusions of those films for each other. Other similar comedies have fallen into this same trap, and while the people who made, say, No Strings Attached might be forgiven for not thinking of a cleverer way out, we expect more from this writer.
Too bad. Had Friends With Kids come to satisfying terms with its unusual domestic arrangement, it could have been a subversive comic masterpiece. Instead, it’s just a funny, well-written movie from a stimulating and charismatic filmmaker with a unique point of view. The comedy’s strengths make its shortcomings worth mulling over. I’ll stop kvetching now.
[box_dark]Friends With Kids
Starring Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt. Written and directed by Jennifer Westfeldt. Rated R.[/box_dark]