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Film review: Friends with Kids**
It’s a brave new world out there, says one of the friends in Friends With Kids; there are “so many unconventional parenting situations”. We know what she means, at least in the West and within a certain quote-unquote ‘progressive’ milieu. You can be infertile nowadays and still have a baby. You can be a woman well past menopause, and still have a baby. You can be a gay couple and still have a baby. You can even be a non-couple, like Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt), who decide to get together once – then go back to being friends – for the sole purpose of having a baby.
Why? Because they see the corrosive effect of having kids on their friends’ marriages (“We don’t know those people. Those people are mean and angry!”), and reckon it makes more sense not to mix sexual attraction with child-raising – and because Julie’s body clock is ticking, and because … well, why not? “Why don’t we just do it?” says Jason blithely. “Have a kid, get it over with”. The point isn’t romance; indeed, the point is to keep romance out of it – raise the kid like a joint project, and meanwhile keep dating others till they find their “person”. “What if I meet my guy while I’m pregnant?” wonders Julie as they’re hashing out the pros and cons. Tell him you had sex with me once and I mean nothing to you, shrugs Jason.
You can see where this is going. Like the couples in No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits, Jason and Julie think they can have physical intimacy without any emotional knock-on effect. Will the plan work out? I’ll never tell – but it’s clear the film has no problem with alternative parenting per se. Friends With Kids is a New York movie, sporting both the speedy repartee and liberal values associated with that city. We open on a close-up of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Jason’s bedtime reading as he fields a call from Julie (“Death by shark or alligator?” she asks, a choice between gruesome deaths being one of the little games they like to play) – and her bedtime reading turns out to be that other New Atheist manual, Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great, showing their shared progressiveness as well as how similar they are.
This is actually, despite some crude jokes, a more thoughtful rom-com than we’re used to at the multiplex (it helps that the characters are all in their late 30s). It’s genuinely concerned about the weird process by which sexual attraction flares up and fades, how you can love someone for 20 years – Jason and Julie have been friends since college – yet not be in love with them, or alternatively how two people can be madly in lust then, once they’re married with children, unable even to be near each other. The actors work well, though you do wonder if another writer-director would’ve cast Westfeldt – a severe presence with a Renee Zellweger squint and a rather pinched, recessive energy – in the lead role.
Yet the film is finally a bit disappointing, maybe because the central premise (the actual parenting) gets forgotten. The unconventional arrangement seems to work, at least during little Joe’s baby years – it might be awkward later on, when he discovers that his parents never loved each other – but in fact the kid seems irrelevant. Neither parent seems especially attached to him. Most of the time they’re holding him while doing something else, or dropping him off somewhere, or negotiating who has to look after him. At best, he’s a pawn in the relationship – so for instance Julie takes him away from Jason, going to live in Brooklyn (the horror!), after Jason breaks her heart by rejecting her advances. At some point in the last 15 minutes I realised that the film might play exactly the same if there hadn’t been a kid at all – if it were just about two friends who had sex together, hoping to still be friends.
Not only does this make for hackneyed drama, it also makes for dodgy politics – because that’s always the argument against unconventional parenting, that it ignores the needs of the child. Should you really have a baby (even if you really, really want one) if you’re a woman past menopause, knowing you’ll be old and grey when the kid’s still in college? Should you really have a baby if you’re a gay couple, depriving the child of a mummy or daddy? No-one knows the answers to these questions, but this slick, clever, rather narcissistic film doesn’t really help. Kids are neutral in Friends With Kids, neither hated when they mess up their parents’ relationships – no parent can be shown disliking their child in a modern movie, unless we’re talking devil-kids and We Need to Talk About Kevin – nor especially loved when things are going well. They should’ve called it ‘Friends With Accessories’.
DIRECTED BY Jennifer Westfeldt
STARRING Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph, Chris O’Dowd
US 2012 107 mins