Even though Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids is probably only about half as clever as it thinks it is, and about a third as “revolutionary” as it would like to be, it’s still one of the more agreeable and fresher romantic comedies to come out in some considerable time—even more so since it bears something of the indie-film cred. The truth is that it’s essentially a standard romantic comedy—right down to the penultimate reel of gloominess—that raises itself up to a considerably higher level by strong writing and playing. So while it isn’t the genre-breaking work it’s being pitched as, it’s a work of some note all the same.
Writer-director Westfeldt (best known to film audiences for the 2002 art-house hit Kissing Jessica Stein) stars as Julie Keller, who is best friends with Jason Fryman (Adam Scott, Our Idiot Brother). As they watch what looks like the death of romance that the stress of having children causes with their friends, they come up with a plan to avoid it. The idea is that they will sidestep all this by having a child, dividing the raising of said child, and leave themselves free for their potential “ideal mates.” The concept is founded in the fact that neither finds the other attractive—so, of course, each has to apologize for shortcomings in the member and mammary department. Considering the genre we’re dealing with here, it’s not exactly a great mystery as concerns just what’s going to happen—and, for that matter, what we want to happen. The question is how it happens.
The primary thing that keeps Friends with Kids interesting and entertaining—and involving—is that the characters are unusually well drawn. It doesn’t stop at the two leads. The other two couples—Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd), as well as Ben (John Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig)—have the air of reality, and, perhaps more importantly, the sense of being likable. That second quality is strong enough that it isn’t killed when one of the characters has an outburst of unpleasant and possibly uncalled for honesty. The two obvious wrong choices for partners that Julie and Jason make along the way are even fairly uncaricatured. Hell, I even liked Megan Fox! (It is not, I think, possible for me to like Edward Burns, so I don’t fault the film or Westfeldt there.)
What makes the film a little bit more special lies in the ways that it shows us, without explaining it, why Julie and Jason’s relationship works better. For that matter, the characters don’t explain it to each other, but it’s there to be seen, and the film trusts us enough to let us see for ourselves. Now, I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture here. The film isn’t perfect. That penultimate reel where the characters break up is no better than any other movie’s and not as good as some others’. Also, while Westfeldt has a good touch with actors, here visual sense is rarely more than utilitarian, and at times the movie looks for all the world like a sitcom. But the plusses so outdistance the minuses that it doesn’t matter all that much. Rated R for sexual content and language.