'Friends with Kids' has a concept that it struggles to handle. The concept is: Two friends, who have no attraction to each other but have never found the 'right one', decide to have a baby together (because they both want kids). They share the responsibility, and they are both free to go on dating and living their lives, without having a depressing marriage that's ruined by kids -- like all of their friends.
Having a good concept is important, and this one is intriguing. But Jennifer Westfeldt (the writer, director and star) has a hard time taking us there.
Let me skip ahead and say: some of this film is fantastic. The latter end of the film really resonates and has a lot of truths about life, and it's acted and directed wonderfully.
But it takes a huge leap of faith to get there, because the first half of the movie is trying to sell the concept to us. It's played out like a quirky rom-com, where the two main characters help each other with their dating and sex lives, while always being a little bit above their friends by staying a little detached.
BUT WE KNOW THEY'RE GOING TO END UP TOGETHER!
Of course, we always know that in these types of films. But you gotta give us a reason why they might NOT end up together, they need some road blocks in the way. Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) have a child together, they care deeply about each other, they're best friends and they're beautiful people --- we know where it's headed, no surprises. So when they then they go out dating-- they're fooling no-one, apart from theirselves. But it's really hard for the audience to buy that!
But the film gets great.
Julie meets a great guy, Kurt (Ed Burns), and Jason begins dating an actress, Mary Jane (Megan Fox). Meanwhile, they have a kid to raise. What makes it interesting is the layers, the complexities. Kurt is a normal guy, who struggles to grasp their set-up. Mary Jane is a young sexy actress, and Jason's wiping baby shit off his clothes. Suddenly -- the dynamic feels real, it feels honest. It takes half of the movie for the concept to actually work.
The golden scene is the dinner scene.
Jason and Julie were always judgemental of their friends and their lifestyles -- they had a problem with how ordinary and dysfunctional they were. But now their relationships are struggling, and they're trying to bring a child up in this mad way. It all comes to a head at dinner - when every relationship at the table implodes.
Everyone is unhappy. Everyone has resentments. Suddenly this feels like life!
It's handled beautifully. Kristen Wiig puts the comedy aside and takes us to the heart of matters. And Jon Hamm is so good and so harsh that he's PAINFUL to watch. The characters are protecting each other one moment, and then ruining each other the next. The complexity is riveting.
There are ghosts in the room. Ghosts of all the things they've never said to each other. You ever had that? A group of friends, or family, and the conflict is simply this: no-one says what they really feel! I remember a few years back I was going through a really difficult time with one of my best friends, because we just didn't grasp each other. I saw him as this guy who got old before his time, caring about wallpaper and a mortgage rather than life! And he saw me as this wishy washy film kid who was sitting at home all day watching movies. We were both wrong! But we only realised this when we talked about it. There's always more to the story.
The real ghost in the room is the love between Julia and Jason. Luckily, by now it is REAL and COMPLEX, and the quirky bullshit rom-com of the first quarter of the film has literally vanished, and it's all the better for it.
Whoever you are, you'll see yourself in this room. Are you Kurt (Ed Burns), the practical guy who is trying to figure out the nuts and bolts of the arrangement? Are you Ben (Jon Hamm) who thinks they're irresponsible? Are you Leslie (Maya Rudolph) who's trying to brush over everything and pretend there's no problem? Or are you the nice guy, Alex (Chris O'Dowd), who's not really strong enough to get involved and have an opinion?
And then the ghost gets addressed.
It starts with Ben challenging them:
Jason gets defensive, he challenges them about their own kid.
They're attacking each other, they're fighting, and you can't take your eyes of it. But the bickering and shouting and judgements are futile. And then it happens.
There's more to the scene. I don't want to spoil everything. It's that complexity and honesty, not just between the lead characters but the whole ensemble, that makes everything suddenly fascinating. Ultimately, that is what makes Jennifer Westfeldt's work interesting: the honesty. It was the same with 'Kissing Jessica Stein', a film about a straight woman who suddenly finds an interest in a another woman. The concept wasn't a clever as it thought it was, but the honest moments still found their way through.
Maybe this is what Jennifer needs to do to get funding, to do films independently of the studios. Has to cook up an 'out there' concept. Ultimately, 'Friends with Kids' repeatedly struggles with its concept. Yet within it, there are some hugely brilliant moments in it that capture who we are as adults, parents, and people who don't want to get old.