March 6, 2012 at 1:34 PM ET
REVIEW: There are lots of clues in "Friends With Kids" that Jennifer Westfeldt has a robust support network around her -- from her film’s keen observation of the ways in which close-knit circles banter and bicker together to the fact that its well-oiled ensemble reunites four alumni from "Bridesmaids." The warmth of the group dynamic extends to the depiction of single life, love, marriage and parenthood in a romantic comedy that takes time to find its groove but steadily accumulates heart and humor.
Graduating from co-screenwriter on the indie hit "Kissing Jessica Stein," Westfeldt handles solo writer-director reins with confidence. Her film covers ground that’s often familiar, but it has enough fresh insights, sweet idiosyncrasies and agreeably rough edges to make it work. What’s most impressive is Westfeldt’s fluid calibration of tone through light humor, seriocomedy, romance, drama and combinations thereof. In addition to cast members, the film also borrows from the "Bridesmaids" playbook with its mild smattering of raunch, which won’t hurt its commercial chances.
Long-time friends Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) both want a child but don’t want the accompanying strain it brings on a traditional relationship. They see ample evidence of that in their pals Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), who have left Manhattan for self-exile in Brooklyn; and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm), once sexually insatiable for each other and now slowly abandoning all civility. Plus neither Julie nor Jason has a promising partner on the scene. So they decide to hook up, make a baby and raise the kid as platonic co-parents.
The experiment hums along smoothly, even when Julie finds an ideal romantic prospect after years of drought in Kurt (Edward Burns), and serial dater Jason falls for knockout Broadway dancer Mary Jane (Megan Fox). But while the four couples are away together on a ski weekend, questions about how they plan to explain the alternative family structure to their son turn confrontational. Jason’s impassioned defense of their choices fuels the confusion in Julie’s head. In that terrific scene Westfeldt shows she is entirely at ease amplifying the dramatic intensity, coaxing strong work from Scott and Hamm at the center of the clash.
The movie dawdles a little in nudging the central love story to its inevitable conclusion, but the relationships are drawn with integrity and the emotional conflicts grounded in honest character observation. That makes us genuinely root for these resistant soulmates. The script also benefits from nuanced consideration of the many ways in which having children changes adults’ lives, going beyond the standard comedy terrain of sleep deprivation, frazzled nerves and diaper disasters.
There are appealing, unforced performances across the board. Westfeldt’s vulnerability plays well against Scott’s glibness underscored by nobler qualities. Burns (a welcome oasis of quiet in an otherwise hyper-verbal pack) and Fox both make solid contributions. And as for the "Bridesmaids" recruits, Hamm, O’Dowd, Rudolph and Wiig, one suspects casting directors could just keep reshuffling this crew into different formations and come up with winning combinations every time.
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