Jennifer Westfeldt has always been a queen of romantic comedy, but her vision of comedic love is much different from the rest of Hollywood's. Her pen always takes the formulaic setup and offers progressive twists that never fall victim to the trite cliches that usually plague the form. First, she questioned sexuality and the divide between straight and gay with Kissing Jessica Stein, then she challenged the all-too-neat notion of happily ever after with Ira & Abby. Now she returns to TIFF on the tenth anniversary of her first film to offer her directorial debut, Friends with Kids, a film that is both her most daring setup and her most mainstream offering to date.
Once again wearing multiple hats in the production, Westfeldt stars as Julie, one of those single Manhattanites only found on TV and film -- living in a gorgeous rent-controlled apartment and enjoying easy-going life. She lives a few floors down from her best friend, Jason (Adam Scott), a playboy manchild who picks women based on their breast size and sexiness. A strange pair, the two are the closest of friends, talking constantly and making minutia-obsessed phone calls at all hours of the day and night.
They're at that age when their friends have moved from the couple stage to the baby stage, and their social circle is basically the stars of this summer's romcom hit, Bridesmaids – Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd play the more settled and sarcastic couple while Kristen Wiig and Westfeldt's real-life partner Jon Hamm play the sex-obsessed pair. As both couples begin to start families, Julie and Jason are faced with their own desires for children and the fact that as the years fly by, neither have moved any closer to their familial goals. Their solution: they will have a child together, but only as friends. As they see it, this will remove the biological and emotional pressure to procreate and allow each the time they need to find their perfect mate.
Naturally, everyone thinks their plan is crazy, but remain aloofly supportive, especially when they discover that this non-couple have transformed their bond of friendship into a well-oiled and platonic parental partnership. They work great as a separate-but-united team until both start dating again and meet people they really care for, instigating explosive jealousy and confusion that challenge their long-term friendship.
Westfeldt herself might not have answered a woman's personal ad, married someone after only hours of knowing him, or decided to have a child with a friend, but her romantic scenarios always come from a place of familiarity and comedic reality. With Friends with Kids, it's even more tangible. She knows her script and how to bring her words into a visual reality, and she populates the cast with her friends and loved ones, creating an idiosyncratic chemistry that exists beyond friendship, the camaraderie where friends can be harshly honest. In real life, they all have a long history together in different ways – Adam Scott's wife Naomi had a brief part in Westfeldt's first film, Jon Hamm has been with her for years, Wiig and Rudolph worked together weekly on Saturday Night Live … you get the idea.
The two who stand out are Jason and Julie's new partners, the kid-averse MJ (Megan Fox) and the strangely “perfect” Kurt (Edward Burns). It partially works to the story's benefit, allowing both to feel like the outsiders in a close-knit circle. Neither are picked for their symbiotic personalities, but rather how they reveal their partners' desires. Julie is yearning for the supportive, sexy everyman and Jason is enamored with the woman who embodies his most carnal desires while also being comfortable enough to settle into a couch and play video games. (A definite sign of where he is in his emotional cycle). However, MJ and Kurt's removal from the chemistry-filled center of this circle of friends is too strong and too present. They are so mismatched in terms of chemistry and presence that neither ever seem like any sort of realistic possibility.
Luckily it's a slight blemish on a strong story. Westfeldt fills the script with genuine heart and laughs, as well as everyday vulgarities, proving that a mixture of heart and raunch is human rather than reductively masculine. She avoids cliched characters and opts to present a collaboration that outlines many manifestations of life and child-rearing, being careful to explore the many ways children affect everyday life and partnerships. And when it's time to hit the more melodramatic notes in the classic rom-com structure, they aren't nearly as awkward as most comedic climaxes – the changing tones reflect the head space of the leads rather than just thrusting them into tumultuous drama for the sake of structure.
But the film is also a catch-22. As a long-time fan of Westfeldt's work, it's charming to see how smoothly she slid into the directorial chair and how naturally the film flowed. It's also nice to see her with a feature that has the potential for mainstream success, not only because of her notable cast and the increasing presence of female directors, but also because the film just works in ways that many rom-coms don't. Nothing seems forced. No twist is lazy. But at the same time, it is so very mainstream. This is a story that seems to challenge traditional norms, but quickly and firmly upholds them. As a film, that's fine, as the third part of Westfeldt's cinematic journey, I can only hope that this is one option in many rather than a distinct change in focus.
Nevertheless, Westfeldt is wonderfully at home in the world of romantic comedies and knows how to offer genuine laughs and love that can be smutty as much as it is sweet, intellectual as much as it is silly. It's formula in the best possible way – understanding the form clearly so that it can be manipulated into an enjoyable adventure rather than a vapid plug-and-play blueprint that offers the lowest common denominator.