There’s a derivative, by-the-numbers rom-com lurking in the periphery of “Friends with Kids” — and thank goodness it’s never allowed to come out. What we get instead is a sharp, funny comedy about two platonic friends who have a baby together and eventually discover (surprise!) that maybe they have feelings for each other. Most of the easy cliches suggested by that premise are sidestepped, which is almost miraculous.
The pals are Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt, who also wrote and directed) and Jason (Adam Scott), New Yorkers with a long-standing relationship that both are happy to keep at the just-friends level. Now in their mid-30s, Julie and Jason are at the age where their fellow educated professionals are coupling up and having children while trying to remain as awesomely carefree as they were before. For example, their married friends Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) announce at the beginning of the film that they’re expecting a baby, but that they’ll never be THOSE parents — you know, the kind who take their misbehaving children to nice restaurants, or who let parenthood suck all the spontaneity and fun out of their lives. Another couple, Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), are so amorous they can barely keep their hands off each other. Surely that will never change, right, even if they have a baby too?
Skipping ahead a few years, we find that of course things have not turned out as expected for either married couple. Leslie and Alex now have two children and have settled into domestic chaos, while Ben and Missy have one and are feeling the strain on their relationship. All of this is conveyed with knowing, well-observed humor that jabs at parental follies without cutting too deep. You get the feeling that as writer and director, Westfeldt is sympathetic to every character — a great quality to have in a comedy.
As witnesses to all this, Julie and Jason wonder if it’s possible to have a child (something they both want) without ruining the romantic spark. They conclude that it is possible — if there’s no romantic spark to begin with. What if Julie and Jason were to have a baby and raise it together as loving but unattached co-parents? With the parenthood itch scratched, they could continue to seek their separate soulmates without having to worry that those relationships will eventually be damaged by children.
So that’s exactly what they do, rather improbably. They are careful to remind everyone that they are NOT a romantic couple. Their married friends think the idea is crazy. Yet at first, sure enough, it seems like parenting is much less stressful when the mother and father aren’t simultaneously trying to maintain their own romance. On the other hand, dating is tricky when you have to coordinate babysitting schedules with your child’s other parent…
Westfeldt, who previously wrote “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “Ira & Abby” but has not directed before, is skilled at making comedy that’s cosmopolitan but still relatable for regular people. A lot of the banter between Julie, Jason, and the other characters has a distinctly New York feel — the drudgery of going all the way from Manhattan to Brooklyn just for a dinner party, for example — but focuses enough on “Seinfeld”-esque minutiae that everyone can get the joke. (Jason rejects one potential girlfriend because “she over-French-pronounces French words.”)
What’s more, the characters are warm and human, even when they do scoundrelly things, and Westfeldt makes use of the whole ensemble, not just Julie and Jason. (In real life, she and Jon Hamm are a couple.) There’s humor in Julie and Jason taking turns making each other jealous with their separate romances; humor in Leslie and Alex’s comfortably hectic suburban lifestyle; humor (and pathos) in Missy and Ben’s rapidly fraying relationship; humor in the way all three pairs interact with and comment on one another’s choices. There’s also a great deal of insight into a variety of perspectives on marriage, romance, and parenthood. It’s the type of movie where each character reminds you of someone you know, aided by a cast that is immensely likable. (The impromptu “Bridesmaids” reunion of Wiig, Rudolph, Hamm, and O’Dowd is a nice bonus.)
We run into a bit of a snag when Megan Fox arrives as a love interest for Jason. Her character is bafflingly wrong for Jason, and Fox is out of her depth in this cast of skilled comic actors. (Edward Burns fares much better as Julie’s superman boyfriend.) It’s the one major instance of the film succumbing to rom-com conventions — but it’s not enough to keep this sophisticated, character-driven story from reaching a conclusion that’s satisfying comedically and emotionally.
B+ (1 hr., 47 min.; )