Jennifer Westfeldt has a face that you will probably recognise, but in reality, she should probably be best-known for her work behind the camera, co-writing – as well as starring in – 2001’s acclaimed rom-com Kissing Jessica Stein. Making a further leap now, Westfeldt is the writer, director, star and producer of the splendid Friends with Kids.
The comparisons to last year’s smash hit Bridesmaids are inevitable but frankly rather favourable, given that Westfeldt’s film similarly boasts the singular written vision of a woman – a rarity in Hollywood – and features much of the same stellar cast, including Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd, and Westfeldt’s own partner, John Hamm. With both of these films detailing different, yet equally pressing sets of grown-up problems, they will make quite the Friday-night-with-Haagen-Dasz double-bill.
It is so common to see that mix of sweet and crude sensibilities coming from Frat Pack filmmakers that when a woman steps up to the plate, we are surprised. If Kristen Wiig proved anything last year with Bridesmaids, it was that female scribes can write filthy, funny banter just as well as men. Ably, Westfeldt herself manages to meld gut-busting honesty with measured sensitivity.
When married couple Alex (O’Dowd) and Leslie (Rudolph) announce their pregnancy, they assure their friends – also married Missy (Wiig) and Ben (Hamm), and single friends Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) – that “nothing is gonna change”. Of course, four years down the line, plenty has changed; Missy and Ben now have a child too, and like Alex and Leslie, seem worn down by parental responsibility. Julie and Jason are the odd couple, and they’re not even a couple, a further irony being that they’re the only two who have maintained the status quo. After much discussion, given their social compatibility as friends and apparent lack of attraction to one another, the two decide to conceive and raise a baby platonically, much to their friends’ dismay.
Westfeldt’s sharply-observed screenplay notes the rose-tinted view of parenthood that many who have not experienced it share, before revealing the truth; the realism of sleepless nights and stress on top of a strained relationship. The early stages milk a fun irony – that Julie and Jason appear to be the most capable parents despite not being together – and a scarily thought-provoking notion, albeit one brought more realistically back to Earth over the film’s course.
Electric chemistry – especially between the extremely likable pairing of Scott and Westfeldt – adds both comic and dramatic weight, even though we’re acutely aware of how things will end up. The set-up is so entertainingly relaxed that it’s almost a shame some form of conflict has to rear its head, as the pair seek their own partners. It’s something of an arbitrary obstacle if also an inevitable one, but admirably gets what is probably a career-best performance out of Megan Fox as Jason’s oversexed free-spirit girlfriend Mary Jane.
Everything comes together on a ski-trip, as tensions rise and we can see where things are heading, but we’re happy to take the ride with them, even when it’s more awkward – and occasionally mortifying – than funny. Firm points are raised during a drunken rage, important ones which nevertheless make the film pale comically in its second half. However, Westfeldt gets major respect for not saving an affecting confessional right for the end; superior acting makes it really work, reflecting the uncertainty and confusion of life in a heartfelt and honest manner.
The more predictable inevitabilities of its latter half aren’t a might as fun as it’s unconventional set-up, but it proves a mostly fulfilling sit with few caveats, except perhaps that Wiig’s character – who at times one suspects might be suffering from post-natal depression – feels a little underdeveloped. Nevertheless, Jennifer Westfeldt continues to forge a strong reputation as a writer of humanist romance.
Friends with Kids is in cinemas Friday.