Friends with Kids a Strong Directorial Debut for Westfeldt
If not for a final scene that left me vacillating between perplexed, bewildered, enchanted and annoyed (not necessarily in the that order), I’d probably be calling Jennifer Westfeldt’s (she wrote Kissing Jessica Stein and Ira & Abby) directorial debut Friends with Kids an early contender for one of 2012’s best films. Even with that scene, I’m tempted to say the acclaimed character actress has delivered a smart and seductive romantic comedy for adults worth crowing about, so much of the film an outright delight I almost feel a bit bad about being so ho-hum about the climactic portions of it.
But endings are important, and in this case Westfeldt has delivered one that left a bitter taste in my mouth, the final line of dialogue keeping with the film’s bracingly vulgar honesty but doing so in a way that I found contrived and forced. The climax sent me out of the theatre scratching my head, and even though I enjoyed the majority this isn’t exactly the sort of reaction I’m guessing the writer/director was hoping for.
The film’s scenario pushes more than a few buttons. Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt) have been best friends since high school. In their thirties, they’ve watched their fellow friends Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), as well as Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), get married, have children and cement their families in all the expected ways. But none of their lives appear to be filled with the sort of carefree enjoyment and uninhibited forms of love (i.e. sex) since each couple started having kids. This seems patently bizarre to Jason and Julie, and while both want to be parents neither wants to sacrifice a fulfilling, sexually romantic relationship in order to settle down, get married and start a family.
The pair strike upon a novel idea: Why don’t they have a child together? They’d be amazing parents, they’re best friends and they’re also not remotely romantically attracted to one another. It will be like having cake and eating it, too, both getting to share the glories of being parents while also being able to date and fall in love with someone else at the exact same time.
You can see where this is all headed and I’m not exactly ruining any kind of surprise if I say the road the film travels isn’t shocking. Westfeldt’s script riffs on classics like When Harry Met Sally…, Annie Hall and Before Sunset with ease. The complex scenario is more intriguing and profound than I expected it to be, making Jason and Julie’s journey towards one another’s arms interesting and relatable for the majority of the film’s running time.
Additionally, the writer/director/actress hasn’t skimped on creating supporting characters worthy of paying attention to. The stories involving Leslie and Alex’s give and take relationship and Ben and Missy’s cantankerous marriage never quite go in the directions I kept assuming they would, each bit of dialogue, collective decision, argument, debate or loving embrace has an authentic clarity that’s refreshing. These were people I felt I knew and could relate to, their collective expeditions into love, romance, sex, parenthood and family nearly as important to my enjoyment of the film as Jason and Julie’s relationship experimentations ultimately prove to be.
Scott has never been better. While I’ve always been partial to the guy in films as radically different as Piranha 3D and Our Idiot Brother, quite frankly I didn’t think he had a performance with this much depth lurking within him. Westfeldt is also great, which isn’t all that much of a surprise, and the way she delivers her lines is as consistently endearing as ever.
The supporting cast can’t help but rise to the occasion as well. Rudolph knocks it out of the park, and the sequence where she listens flabbergasted to Jason and Julie’s announcement to their intentions, as well as her husband Ben’s reaction to it, is gleefully priceless. But everyone is wonderful, including Edward Burns and Megan Fox (showing once again a terrific knack for comedy), Westfeldt making sure everyone gets at least one moment to shine at some point during the picture’s 107-minute running time.
So what’s the problem? It’s not a big one if I’m being honest. The issue is that it happens right at the very end of the film during the narrative’s most predictable section. Jason and Julie get to the point of their relationship you know they’re going to finally get to, and while everything goes to form the way they talk to one another and how they respond to each proclamation or statement feels out of place, oddly vile and pointlessly idiosyncratic. It’s needlessly rude and obnoxious, and while there is some daring, maybe even a sprinkling of honesty, in the movie’s final line, I still can’t say the taste hearing it left in my mouth was altogether palatable.
Yet Friends with Kids is a solid effort otherwise. The performances are excellent, Rudolph’s in particular (I’d maybe even go so far as to call her Oscar-worthy), the script is ballsy and intelligent, and Westfeldt’s direction is confidently dynamic start to finish. She made the movie she wanted to, of that I think there is no denying, and even with a last scene that left me bitterly flummoxed I still think this a romantic effort I’ll happily watch again at some point in the very near future.
Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)