If Ingmar Bergman Were Funny

Photo: Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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.

Cécile de France and Thomas Doret in The Kid With a Bike.Photo: Christine Plenus/Courtesy of Sundance Selects

The Dardenne brothers of Belgium, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have moved away from the somewhat formless quality of their early work into the realm of melodrama, which would be worrisome if their new films weren’t as good or better—heightened and purified by stronger narratives. The Kid With a Bike centers on 11-year-old Cyril (Thomas Doret), whose father has deposited him in a state-run school and decamped, leaving no address. In the face of all evidence, Cyril won’t accept this rejection. He runs away to their now-empty flat and pounds on the door. When school counselors come, he clings to the legs of a random young woman and screams for his papa and his bike.

The woman is a hairdresser named Samantha (Cécile de France) who tracks down the bike (it was sold), locates the father (“Seeing him stresses me out. I’m starting over”), and arranges to take the boy in. Why? Hollywood would demand a backstory, but to the Dardennes, what does it matter? She defines herself by her moral choices. The boy, though, is wild, un-broken-in, apt to lash out, like a damaged pup from a shelter that you fear might have to go back. His frightening openness is evident when he falls in with a local delinquent, who teaches him to clobber people and take their cash. There are hints of Pinocchio and the tragic A.I. Can Cyril become a real boy?

The Dardennes have an exquisite sense of when to let their shots run on: A scene in which Cyril pedals furiously away from a crime evokes his state of mind and gives you time to brood on where he has been and might be going. Despite the simplicity of the brothers’ technique, The Kid With a Bike has deep religious underpinnings, a relentless drive toward the mythos of death and resurrection. The film is not just in the tradition of Pinocchio and A.I.: It is a worthy successor.

Centered on youthful cops working undercover in high schools, the eighties Fox TV series 21 Jump Street had a gritty vibe (Fox was new and looking to distinguish itself from the big three networks) and scripts that were painfully earnest, with Johnny Depp groping his way toward a standard Method juvenile career before cultivating late-Brando-style weirdness.

The movie, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, spoofs the series and plays the premise for laughs. It has a bad, slapstick first act but by midpoint becomes strangely compelling, tapping into the fantasy of reliving one’s high-school years (which did a number on us all) and getting it right. After adjusting to the Zeitgeist zigs and zags of the seven years since they graduated, fat Jonah earns a place with the popular kids and develops self-esteem, while dumb hunk Channing settles in with the science nerds and learns to tap phones. It’s an agreeable shambles. The best scenes feature an anti-bullying environmentalist drug dealer played by Dave Franco, who’s like a cross between his weirdo brother James and fifties Method neurotics like Montgomery Clift. I can’t wait for his next movie.

See Also
Q&A With Jennifer Westfeldt

Friends With Kids
Directed by Jennifer Westfeldt.

The Kid With a Bike
Directed by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne.

21 Jump Street
Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

If Ingmar Bergman Were Funny