Jennifer Westfeldt’s ensemble comedy Friends With Kids has a nervous, high-strung rhythm and terrific tension, as if the characters’ backs are against the wall and the clock is ticking down. It’s an unusual pitch for a film with a rom-com premise and a plot that turns on child care—the stuff of sitcoms and middlebrow “dramedies” that give you a few big laughs, a little cry, and a sporadic shiver of recognition. But Westfeldt, now 42, belongs to a generation (and class) of people for whom nothing about having kids is easy. Her intensity feels just right—better than in any film I’ve seen in years—for How We Breed Now.
The setup is deceptively tidy. In a prologue, Westfeldt’s character, Julie, sits in a restaurant with her circle—her best friend, Jason (Adam Scott), and two couples, Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O’Dowd) and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig)—and they stare with contempt at parents who’ve brought noisy kids. Four years on, Leslie and Alex live in Brooklyn with two kids and in fractious disarray, while Ben and Missy have a son and barely speak. It’s a relief for Julie not to have that kind of pressure, but there’s pressure of another kind: Her odds of childbearing lessen each year, and there’s no mate in sight. So Jason volunteers to come to her rescue and impregnate her. They’d share custody of the child, he says, and avoid the slough of despond into which their friends have fallen: “Get to it, pop one out quickly, and start looking for your guy!” he says, selling it hard.
If Jason is right and it’s a stress-free solution, then there’s no movie, so you know that he’ll be wrong, and you’ll probably have a hunch that the traditional arrangement—two parents who live together, theoretically in love—will end up the most sensible. But Friends With Kids doesn’t play like a movie in which the two leads, who supposedly love each other but aren’t “in love,” are headed for the clinch. Westfeldt—who in life lives with Jon Hamm and has publicly complained of hearing “You’re so lucky!” a million times—clearly knows she has the kind of on-the-border cuteness that gets frequently upstaged. When she has Jason say he’s not physically attracted to Julie, it’s entirely possible Westfeldt means that to be true. Midway through the film, he takes up with Mary Jane, an actress and dancer played by no less than Megan Fox. (It’s the sort of match in which he’d be the one to hear “You’re so lucky!” a million times and “She’s so lucky!” never.) Maybe Jason is the sort of pleasant-looking but slightly nerdy guy who couldn’t be comfortable with a woman merely cute, who requires a trophy mate. And maybe Julie should end up with the soft-blue-eyed dreamboat Kurt (Edward Burns), whom she meets after giving birth and who seems to find her edginess adorable. Some people need to date above their class.
With the exception of Hamm, the actors are known primarily for comedy, but they don’t ever pull faces or behave as if they’re in a rom-com. More like Scenes From a Marriage. There’s an extra element of tension when clowns don’t cut loose. Hamm’s Ben looks groggy and for much of the film stays uncomfortably silent (when he opens his mouth, poisoned toads leap out), while Wiig’s Missy seethes and avoids his eyes. (“Some people aren’t meant to be parents,” she says quietly, the ultimate dismissal.) Rudolph’s disheveled Leslie barks at O’Dowd’s unkempt Alex for not cleaning up, while Alex, fresh from a 45-minute bathroom stint, gives a goofy shrug. Perhaps nothing will convince Megan Fox–o–phobes of her talent, but her Mary Jane is perfect: unaffected, secure in her beauty, uninterested in kids or being tied down or anything other than exercise and eight performances a week. The kids of the title aren’t supercute: They’re kids. They need to be fed and clothed and picked up after and told how special they are. The editor, Tara Timpone, seems to catch every conspiratorial or hostile glance among the adults, every flash of devastation or rage being quietly suppressed. (This is one of the most adroitly edited dramas I’ve seen in a long time.) Cinematographer William Rexer uses warm, golden tones, but clutter is king. It’s hard not to be aware as you watch Friends With Kids that Westfeldt is running hard at her subject. She doesn’t waste time, jumping months and years to the next seismic tremor, the natural flights of her mind not (as Dr. Johnson would say) from hope to hope but from pressure point to pressure point.
Westfeldt’s own performance is beautifully modulated, Julie’s natural goosey-ness kept in check by the fear of being seen to be as frightened as she is—her only shortcoming a certain tightness of the face that keeps her from being as transparent (and, I feel sure, as winsome) as she could be. The film’s revelation is Adam Scott, a second-banana comic best known for obnoxious squirts. Easing back on caricature but taking nothing off his fastball, he recalls the young Alan Alda, coming on glib and finishing vulnerable—much like this marvelous film.