Jennifer Westfeldt seems interested in exploring the complications that come with pondering parenthood with a mix of candor and heart in "Friends With Kids." She touches on the stages so many of us find ourselves going through in our 30s: steadfast reluctance, vaguely nagging interest, strong yearning and, eventually, the what-the-hell-have-we-done? realism of it all.
Unfortunately, as writer, producer, star and (for the first time) director, Westfeldt takes a topic full of complex emotional shadings and turns it into something that is, for the most part, reductive, cliched and even sitcommy. You want to believe she means well, that perhaps she has experienced some of these stages herself. She's so adorably neurotic here (as she was in her acclaimed screenwriting debut "Kissing Jessica Stein"), and she's amassed such a strong supporting cast, including her real-life romantic partner Jon Hamm, that you wish "Friends With Kids" were better, truer.
With its Manhattan setting filled with hyper-verbal people struggling to find happiness and love, "Friends With Kids" owes a great debt to Woody Allen, but it's also too frequently interested in the easy, raunchy laugh.
Westfeldt stars as the prim Julie, who lives in the same building as her college best friend, the glib Jason (Adam Scott in an impressive, rare leading-man role). They know everything about each other, have an incredible comfort level and (supposedly) aren't even remotely attracted to each other. This means, of course, that they are destined to be together.
Over the next few years, Julie and Jason see the married couples in their clique fall one by one into the parent trap. Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd) end up having two kids and moving to Brooklyn (the horror!). Missy and Ben (Kristen Wiig and Hamm) used to paw at each other insatiably, but now find that their passion has cooled with the arrival of a newborn. With the exception of O'Dowd's character, who is the voice of reason, all of these people come off as shrill and unlikable as the couples bicker constantly.
Julie and Jason believe there has to be a better way, so they decide to have a baby together, share joint custody but still maintain separate romantic lives. They figure they can enjoy all the pride and fulfillment of being a parent without all the emotional entanglements that come with actually being in love.
Their plan hums along smoothly for a while, with Julie being set up with the too-good-to-be-true single dad Kirk (Edward Burns, a welcome source of calm) and Jason hooking up with the gorgeous, vibrant Broadway dancer Mary Jane (Megan Fox, sufficiently sexy and vapid). The little boy they share is an angel -- except for the obligatory exploding poop gag, that is. (The stuff doesn't really come out that way, FYI.) But naturally, the long-simmering feelings Julie and Jason discover they've had for each other begin to boil over, and they don't always do so at the right time.
The volatility of all these couples' relationships explodes when they travel with their kids for a New Year's ski trip in Vermont. This produces the one piercing moment of truth: a painfully awkward dinner in which everyone says too much. It's an example of Westfeldt's generosity -- she gives her co-stars the best lines -- but it also makes you realize how underused her co-stars have been to that point, especially brilliant comics Wiig and Rudolph.
We don't know these people nearly as well as we should, which is a problem in a film in which everyone talks non-stop. And along those lines, "Friends With Kids" ends with what is quite possibly the clunkiest closing line in movie history. Try using it on someone you love and see how it goes.
"Friends With Kids," a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R for sexual content and language. Running time: 102 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G -- General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG -- Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 -- Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R -- Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 -- No one under 17 admitted.