Friends with Kids has a tone that’s amiable yet disconcertingly frazzled. It appears that the writer/director/star Jennifer Westfeldt couldn’t entirely decide between a challenging New York relationship drama in the mode of Husbands and Wives or a fizzier more conventionally uplifting paean to the nuclear family that people might actually go see. This interior battle between art and commerce haunts the film and occasionally enlivens it. Watching Friends with Kids is akin to accidentally stumbling upon a portion of Scenes from a Marriage in the middle of a marathon of Friends.
The high-concept premise is unusually progressive for a contemporary romantic comedy. Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are fortysomething, perpetually single best buds who decide to have a child with one another while keeping themselves romantically available to other people. The idea is that they will sidestep the messy resentment and mixed signals that characterize their friends’ troubled marriages and skip right to the single parenting that they assume to be inevitable. Julie and Jason will prevent kids from ruining their relationships by compartmentalizing romance and childrearing.
Julie and Jason’s decision is, of course, born from desperate loneliness as well as increasing feelings of contempt toward their mutual friends, whose marriages appear to have succumbed to the stresses of unending servitude to their children. Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) appear to be relatively happy yet resolutely asexual in their messy, smelly abode, while Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig), once given to public quickies, can barely speak to one another without airing toxic, conversation-killing grievances.
The scenes that find the six friends attempting to navigate their barely suppressed issues with one another over an occasional and increasingly infrequent group dinner have unexpected snap. Westfeldt has a talent for frank, brutal zingers that suddenly change the emotional temperature of a scene, and the superb editing teases out a surprising variety of unresolved and often contradictory emotional nuances.
Unfortunately, Friends with Kids is only half a good movie, as it eventually reveals itself to be another film about the ultimate futility of lifestyles that don’t conform to the model of the traditional American nuclear family. Julie and Jason must learn the error of their ways in time for the inevitable race to the romantic finish line that’s apparently required of every American love story, thus ending the film on a note of obligation that dampens the charm and volatility of Westfeldt’s best moments. The film is ultimately a strangely ingratiating failure of nerve.
The image is intentionally and appropriately a little soft, capturing the warm brown and yellow hues of the often dimly lit Manhattan apartments of the film's setting. The sound mix sports an impressive density of detail, particularly in the frequent group scenes that require that you discern most of the titular characters' voices at once.
There are a number of bloopers and deleted scenes with optional audio commentaries, but the feature-film commentary with writer-actor-director Jennifer Westfeldt, actor Jon Hamm, and cinematographer William Rexer covers the same ground with greater detail. Traditional making-of anecdotes are disclosed with Westfeldt revealing an attention to editing and visual detail that certainly comes across in the film. Stick with the commentary and skip the rest, unless you're a die-hard blooper aficionado.
There’s a lot of talent and promise on display in Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids, but a dispiriting obligation to formula ultimately rears its ugly head.