With the three films she’s written and starred in over the past decade, Jennifer Westfeldt has carved out a respectable microgenre of romantic comedy/dramas about people gamely, playfully experimenting with alternatives to traditional relationships. In Kissing Jessica Stein, Westfeldt plays a woman testing the wheels on lesbianism after too many problems with men. In Ira & Abby, she proposes to a man she’s just met, and they try to make their marriage work as they get to know each other. And in the new Friends With Kids, which also marks Westfeldt’s directing debut, she and Party Down’s Adam Scott play BFFs who have a child together so they can enjoy parenthood without destroying prospective partnerships. All three films ask intriguing questions about whether it’s really necessary to stand by familiar models of romance, and whether people are better off writing their own rules. And all three use comedy to avoid getting message-heavy, and emotional stakes to avoid being empty fluff. But Westfeldt has a tendency to go over the top, and Friends With Kids in particular has a shrill, smug edge that kills the comedy and the drama alike.
Buying into the Friends With Kids storyline requires viewers to first accept that having children automatically turns married couples into hateful monsters with no control over their lives or their spiteful, vicious tongues. Scott and Westfeldt learn this lesson by watching their friends (half the cast of Bridesmaids, with Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig as one couple, and Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd as another) have kids and promptly turn into ridiculous screaming stereotypes. So they decide to get their baby days out of the way early in life, reasoning that since they aren’t romantically or sexually entwined, a child won’t spoil those bonds, and they can enjoy family time, then move on to unspoiled romance with other people. The film’s biggest weakness is that their logic is ludicrous, and the script doesn’t justify it, except by depicting them as right at every turn. Nonsensically, and without explanation, their lack of romantic expectations for each other lets them juggle ambitious careers, busy dating lives, and parenthood with the grace and ease that’s escaped all their disintegrating friends. “I will be 100 percent committed to this half the time,” Scott promises Westfeldt early on, and somehow, that’s enough—until, because this is still a rom-com at heart, it suddenly isn’t.
Much like Bridesmaids, Friends With Kids is at its best when exploring what seems like a sincere friendship. When Scott and Westfeldt are hanging out on the phone late at night, or sharing their discomfort and disbelief at what their friends have become, they make a believable pair, and the film is admirably devoted to organically building their relationship. And much like Bridesmaids, Westfeldt’s film tries to cut through any possible sense of rom-com schmaltz by piling on the poop jokes and tits-and-vaginas vulgarity. (This is a film in which “Let me fuck the shit out of you” counts as the ultimate in romantic sweet-talk—though for what it’s worth, Scott and Westfeldt’s awkward baby-making sex scene is authentically funny.) But there’s no sense of connection between all these extremes, or between the big, broad comedy and the authentic drama that comes from Hamm and Wiig in particular. Friends With Kids lives and dies from moment to disconnected moment, and too many of those moments are too wildly exaggerated to bring across a meaningful message, and too preachy to just be comedy for its own sake.