Some viewers seem very bothered by the premise of Friends with Kids. But, if you aren’t offended by the deep-rooted cynicism of its protagonists, Jennifer Westfeldt’s directorial debut is the rare “romantic comedy” that qualifies as both funny and adult. It’s also, just marginally, romantic.
Westfeldt and Adam Scott play Julie and Jason, two thirtysomething New York professionals who have been best friends for so long that the thought of getting physical or romantic with each other, à la When Harry Met Sally..., just grosses them out. They snark about their failed relationships and roll their eyes at couples who bring shrieking toddlers into restaurants ... until their mutual friends start having kids, too.
Watching as child rearing turns formerly happy duos into stressed-out antagonists, Julie and Jason diagnose the problem with a naïveté worthy of adolescents. Romance, they decide, is incompatible with reproduction. The best way to breed is with a trustworthy coparent — such as a best friend — so one will never have to bicker with one’s True Love (who will surely happen along at some point) about who’s on diaper duty.
None of this would have sounded that strange to people born centuries ago, back in the days when marriage and love were seen as oil and water. But it certainly does to the pair’s friends and relations, when they learn that Julie and Jason are putting their theory in practice. Is he impregnating her because he “feels sorry” for her? Will their son be scarred by the spectacle of his friend-parents dating other people? Soon we find out, and, as always in comedy, the best-laid plans go decisively, but not tragically, awry.
Friendship is hard to fake on film — perhaps even harder than sexual chemistry — and the movie’s greatest strength is that its characters seem to enjoy each other’s company. Westfeldt and Scott share a wry, neurotic humor that compensates for his not-so-ideal casting as a callous playboy ad man. (Scott has carved out a small-screen niche as a more endearing Woody Allen type; his TV girlfriend, Leslie Knope, would be startled to hear about him dating Megan Fox in this film.) Maybe the role of Jason was originally intended for Jon Hamm, who plays one of the couple’s friends, along with three more Bridesmaids alumni: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd. They all interact in relaxed, funny, natural ways, while the more stereotypical characters — played by Fox and Edward Burns, as Julie’s love interest — get shorter shrift from Westfeldt’s screenplay.
Some have charged that the film is anti-family, but it’s premised on Julie and Jason’s desire to have kids. It’s their desire to have everything — except angst or mess — that ends up seeming pretty immature. Westfeldt could have developed this theme better; a scene where the couple wow their skeptical friends with their mellowness and poise in dealing with an infant comes dangerously close to supporting their thesis that romance is what poisons family and vice versa.
But the other shoe drops when Julie and Jason start dating their “perfect” partners. The deeper they get into their bold relationship experiment, the more they realize, inevitably, that friendship can be as difficult to negotiate as any other kind of love. There’s nothing shocking about that discovery, or about where it leads. What is shocking is that Friends with Kids manages to confront a few hard truths on its way there. In a genre where pink-tinged fantasy fulfillment is the norm, that’s an experiment I can get behind.