Fans of Tina Fey never know which Fey will show up to a new project. Sometimes it's the warm-but-diamond-sharp Fey who created and stars in the often unspeakably great sitcom 30 Rock. Other times, it's the I-know-what's-best-for-you Tina Fey, the one who stopped Mean Girls mid-movie to deliver a lecture, and who recently showed up stumping humorlessly for Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live. Baby Mama adds a third Tina Fey to the lineup: The one who gets stuck in a formulaic comedy and tries to claw her way above the material, almost but not quite making it.
At least she isn't alone. Fey plays a career woman who develops baby fever late in her 30s. That affliction eventually leads her to hire a down-market surrogate (Fey's former SNL co-star Amy Poehler) who comes to live in her posh Philadelphia condo. Odd Couple-inspired awkwardness ensues, complicated by Fey's tentative romance with the sweet owner of a juice store (Greg Kinnear, playing a man who hates Jamba Juice with the sort of passion most people reserve for child molesters) and a difficult relationship with a New Age boss (an uncredited, and pretty funny, Steve Martin).
It's a beyond-talented cast, with plenty of other familiar faces popping in for a scene or two, plus a nice supporting turn from Romany Malco as Fey's over-involved doorman, but Michael McCullers' script and direction don't give them much room to work. Much of the movie hinges on characters not revealing information to each other that no sane person would ever keep a secret; Baby Mama doesn't have a plot so much as a series of contrivances that play out completely as expected. It's not without laughs—Poehler and Fey, as ever, have strong chemistry, and there's a truly bizarre scene in which Martin offers Fey a strange "reward" for a job well done—but there's a lot of arid space between them.
And the gags aren't the only missing element. Fey's character wants a baby because—well, we never really know. She just does, and with no real rooting interest in her quest for motherhood, it's hard to care whether she ends up with one. Poehler never makes her character more than the sum of her funniest lines and strangest homemade outfits. That's not for lack of effort on her part or anyone else's, but it's hard to get won over by effort alone.