I love independent films. Usually, they tell more personal, heartfelt, interesting, unusual and/or daring stories. Usually, the characters are more real and believable. Usually, the filmmaker is telling a more intimate story, drawing on their own life and what they have learned (or not learned). Basically, independent film can provide an escape from the cookie-cutter fare offered by the studios.
I also really liked Jennifer Westfeldt's last film "Kissing Jessica Stein". It captured most of the spirit of what a good independent film can do.
When I started to hear the buzz about "Friends With Kids", Westfeldt's new film as a writer/ director, co-producer and star, I started to get excited. The buzz about the great cast (Jon Hamm – Westfeldt's real boyfriend, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Chris O'Dowd and Adam Scott) seemed to indicate the film would be a home run.
The anticipation may have exceeded the actual film. It has some very good moments, but it falters and in the end and doesn't deliver in one key area.
I don't really consider myself an old-fashioned person. I really enjoy and seem to embrace films that push boundaries, any boundaries, for the most part, as long as they push these boundaries in a way that works and makes sense to that film. "Friends With Kids" is a romantic comedy and it does push a few boundaries. But because of this, it seems less romantic and therefore less successful. Maybe I really need and want my romance films to be more old-fashioned? Maybe I really want and need to see "The Vow". Groan. I won't do it. I won't. But when I go to films like "27 Dresses", "The Ugly Truth" or "Leap Year", these don't satisfy either.
Six friends living in Manhattan get together on a regular basis. Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd (he played the Irish cop in "Bridesmaids") are married and have a child who seems to consume every moment of their time and space. Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) are married, madly in love and can't understand why anyone would want to have kids and complicate things. Jason and Julie (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt) are very good, old friends who live in the same building, their apartments floors apart. Flash forward a few months and Ben and Missy now have a child and Leslie and Alex are living in Brooklyn, so the friends see less of each other. They get together at Leslie and Alex's for dinner to celebrate Jason's birthday, but it is a disaster. Everyone starts to fight and Jason and Julie end up at a bar eating birthday cake. Julie's biological clock starts to tick and she mentions to Jason that she really wants to have a kid. Should she go to a sperm bank? Should she look for a donor? Should she try to find Mr. Right? Eventually, they decide to have a kid and share the responsibility of raising the child, wile remaining friends. Their friends insist it will never work. But as they continue to get together, after the birth of their son, Jason and Julie seem to be the only couple who has everything together. Leslie and Alex seem amazed. Ben and Missy seem jealous. Then, Julie and Jason begin dating other people. Jason meets Mary Jane (Megan Fox, "Transformers 1 & 2", "Jennifer's Body") and Julie meets Kurt (Edward Burns, "27 Dresses", "The Brothers McMullen", "Life or Something Like It"). Each of their new loves seems to be perfect and this makes the long time friends jealous.
Written, directed and co-starring Jennifer Westfeldt, "Friends" really concentrates on the story of Jason and Julie. Because they have been friends for so long, they pretty much know what each other is thinking at any given moment. They really are a couple except they don't live together and they don't have sex. And because Jason is a ladle's man, who seems to have a different woman in his bed every night, they seem to prefer it this way. But Julie thinks nothing of calling Jason in the middle of the night and he doesn't care if a new woman is asleep in his bed, he answers and they talk and deal with each other's issues.
Jason and Julie are really amazed when their friends have kids and complicate their lives. When the new parents start to move, to take advantage of larger homes in the other boroughs, cab drives become expensive and prohibitive and their lives are turned upside down. Is it all worth it? Leslie and Alex are the first to have a kid and they seem to be getting through it all right. Sure, their apartment is a mess when the others visit, they fight and argue and have disagreements, but they also share a bond that seems as though it could withstand all of these problems. They are, for me, the most realistic couple, because you can tell that even with all of the problems, they will make it through and live a long and happy life together.
Ben and Missy have the least amount of screen time, but also share the most dramatic character arc. Their characters provide a nice counterpoint to everything Julie and Jason are going through, but because they deal with so much, in such a relatively short period of time, they seem oddly under developed. Almost like Cliff Notes of the real thing. They start off promisingly. The film opens with the three couples gathering for dinner at a restaurant. Jason and Julie arrive late to find Leslie and Alex sitting at a table alone. They quickly learn Ben and Missy have gone to the bathroom, to have sex. Later, they have a kid and their relationship goes down hill from there, the very situation Jason and Julie want to avoid.
Adam Scott and Westfeldt have a nice chemistry together. They actually appear to be really good friends. Apparently, all six actors have known each other for a number of years, in some combination or other. So when Julie and Jason talk to each other late at night, it seems completely natural and we really get a feeling they know each other very well. When they decide to have the child, but remain platonic, there is a nice, touching moment when they actually go through the process of 'having a kid'. For a long time, the relationship and the arrangement works and they become the envy of their friends.
But when they decide to start dating other people, jealousy rears it's ugly head and throws a wrench in the works.
Westfeldt seems particularly honest and heartfelt. Adam Scott is really good and convincing as a lothario. Let's face it, he isn't your typical matinee idol (Hamm or even Burns would be the more obvious choice for this role) but he convinces us that he is an extremely popular and wildly successful ladies man. When he first approaches Mary Jane, he seems both confident and shy, making him seem even more irresistible. He also shows us in many ways that he cares very deeply for Julie and their son.
There are three major problems with "Friends". The first is the casting of Megan Fox and Edward Burns. Fox is actually a good choice and makes her portrayal of Mary Jane really believable. But because the mechanics of the story insist that Jason and Julie will eventually have to get together (Problem #2: For a film that is trying to be more modern, this is a remarkably old-fashioned convention), she has to be 'less' in some way. She is young, they have fantastic sex and they actually seem to care about one another. But Jason must eventually fall out of love with her and this handled in a less than convincing way. On the flip side, when Julie meets Kurt (Burns), they seem to be an interesting mix. But Burns is pretty boring. Sure, he's handsome, but he just seems so vanilla and unexciting. He doesn't seem to ignite passion in Julie, at least in the same way Mary Jane ignites passion in Jason. Julie makes a couple of remarks about him, but we never really witness anything that leaves a lasting memory.
The third problem comes from the film's desire to be a modern take on the romantic comedy. At times, this idea works and comes across, at other's it falls very short. When it falls short, it robs the film of any lasting memory of romance. The film seems to confuse what most would consider as being lustful with being in love particularly in the final moments, which I can't really discuss. I want to see people embrace, kiss passionately, more. In "Friends", this idea is taken to a more modern level, perhaps an extreme and it just seems to leave a strange taste in the mouth.
"Friends With Kids" has a lot of good stuff going on, a lot to recommend it. But it also has significant problems, robbing it of any lasting impact. Catch a bargain matinee. Anything else will likely leave you feeling unsatisfied.