May 04, 2013

Pondering Childbirth With CONCEPTION And FRIENDS WITH KIDS

"Can we just come up with a happy medium between 'do it' and 'fuck?'"

So far I've been very happy with my progress in this cinematic endeavor.  I'm now into my third month and I haven't missed a screening yet.  That said, I am unsurprisingly WAY behind on my writing.  With a friend's bachelor party in New Orleans looming next weekend, I've already decided to sequester myself at home the next few days in an effort to play catch up, but I don't think that's going to be good enough.  To that end, I plan to double up the movies on some of these articles when it feels appropriate.  For example, the last two Wife's Choices were the 1954 and 1995 versions of Sabrina, so I'll be writing a comparison piece akin to my recent Let The Right One In/Let Me In article.  I also spent the better part of last week at the Independent Film Festival Boston, so I might write up one long piece about the festival.  (I'm not sure about this, as I don't want to shortchange any of the great movies I saw there.)  But today I'm going to match up two films two completely unrelated films with a thematic connection: having a baby.

I'm currently about three weeks short of my first wedding anniversary.  (Hilariously, Jamie and I will be spending the day at another friend's wedding.  That's what happens when you get married on a holiday weekend.)  Of our sprawling group of collective friends, there are a handful that are currently married or engaged, and it's generational milestone that I've long since grown comfortable with.  Babies on the other hand...that's something I'm still getting used to.  We have a few friends with kids, but it's definitely not a common occurrence yet.  At the same time, when my father turned 30, I was five years old with a baby sister.  That absolutely blows my mind whenever I stop to think about it.  Make no mistake, I absolutely want to have kids at some point, but I am very much a pragmatist.  While I'm quickly approaching the point where I feel emotionally ready to be a father, I am in no way financially or logistically prepared to do so.  That doesn't dull my desire for a child (or two), but if Jamie told me today that she was pregnant, there would be more than a little bit of panic involved.

Conception is, as the title implies, all about the fun part of having a kid: the sex part.  We follow nine different couples on the night that they conceive a child.  Some are looking to get pregnant, but for most it's the farthest thing from the couple's minds.  There's a really good mix of situations here, from teenagers losing their virginity to a married couple who just had their first kid and pretty much everything in between.  It's a nice exploration of the different phases of a relationship, each of which are cleverly juxtaposed as we transition from scene to scene.  However, it is a somewhat risky approach because, much like a prequel, we already know how it's going to end.  Since there's no mystery in the destination, that means it's all about how we get there.  In other words, this is a movie that lives and dies on the strength of its cast and its characters.

It's a pleasant collection of talent that you probably recognize from some of your favorite TV shows.  There's Mrs. Coach from Friday Night Lights, Claire and Haley Dunphy from Modern Family, Wash from Firefly, Marcy Runkle from Californication, Kevin from Shameless, Rafi from The League...and David Arquette.  They all keep it pretty lightweight and each couple's situation is different enough that it's easy to move from one thread to another without confusion.  At the same time, nine different stories in 87 minutes means that we don't have enough time to really explore any of these characters or relationships in any real depth.  We're left with a cursory glance at all of these people, never moving beyond the surface of any given scenario; it feels more like a series of sketches rather than fully developed scenes.  The movie skates by on the charm of the cast, but I would have preferred to see four nuanced couples with more compelling stories.

"What better woman could I have picked to be the mother of my child?"
My friend Billman was the first of my close friends to have a baby.  When his son Hank was born, we all agreed that he was spoiling the idea of having kids for the rest of us.  Hank was pretty much the perfect baby, spending his first few months just sleeping, eating and being fucking adorable.  By all accounts, Billman and his wife Jen spent the majority of their family leave time watching The Wire while Hank napped in the corner.  They made it all look too easy, and now my friends and I all feel like one of us is destined to have some kind of devil baby to balance the scales.  This is pretty much Jamie's biggest fear when it comes to parenthood.  While I've always wanted kids, she had some some honest and justified hesitation when we first started dating.  She loves children (she better, she teaches second grade) but the actual process of childbirth scares the crap out of her.  Moreover, she is a woman who prizes sleep above all things, and everyone knows that new parents essentially spend the first year of the baby's life in a zombified state.    But Jamie loves other people's babies because, as she says, "When they start crying, I can just give the baby back."

In that light, Friends With Kids feels almost like my wife's ideal blueprint for raising a child.  It's the story of Julie and Jason (Jennifer Westfeldt and Adam Scott), two lifelong friends who both want to have a kid but aren't in relationships.  Moreover, their best friends (Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph) are two married couples whose kids have driven them to exhaustion and misery.  Julie and Jason posit that, rather than let parenthood sap all the romance from marriage, it would almost be better to skip right to the part where you're divorced, spending quality time with your kids and then handing them off to the other parent while you have time to yourself.  So Julie and Jason decide to skip to the end and just have a kid together without any kind of romantic relationship.

It's...just as silly as it sounds.  While their married friends are convinced there's no way this crazy arrangement will work, it actually kinda does for a while.  They trade the baby back and forth between their two apartments (they live in the same building in Manhattan) and work out systems to take care of their son together, adopting the mantra, "I will be 100% committed to this, half the time."  Everything seems hunky dory until, predictably, they each find themselves in serious relationships with other people.  Jason starts dating a dancer played by Megan Fox (enough said) while Julie settles in with divorced father Ed Burns.  Both relationships eventually fall apart, Jason's because his busty showgirl doesn't like kids and Julie's because she realizes that she's (dum dum DUM!) really in love with Jason.  I'm sure you can decipher the rest.

I love Adam Scott in everything, and I think he's the thing that keeps this movie somewhat interesting.  Jason is an odd character built on contradictions.  He's never had a real relationship and he's kind of a shallow dick when he talks about women, but he's actually good guy who's awesome with kids and will defend the people he loves to his last breath; he has a nice journey from stunted man-child to emotionally self-aware father.  Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph are both cute as the married parents who love each other despite the insanity of parenthood, while Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig play their darker half, the couple who just grow to resent each other more and more with every mounting challenge.  Wiig is kind of stranded by the material, while Hamm shines as a stupendous jackass who revels in calling his friends out on their bullshit.

Unforutnately Jennifer Westfeldt, who pulls triple duty as star, writer and director, is really the weakest  link.  Her direction is perfunctory at best and while she has a good ear for dialogue, the story is pretty paint-by-numbers and eventually runs out of steam, reverting to your standard romantic comedy formula.  But even with all that, I feel like I might enjoy Jennifer Westfeldt's movies a lot more if they didn't star Jennifer Westfeldt.  Her face borders on expressionless and her lack of dramatic range makes Julie look downright boring next to Scott's Jason.  Even Kristen Wiig's character feels more interesting, and she basically spends her screentime drinking booze and glaring at Jon Hamm.  It's a shame, as a more compelling performance from another actress might have really mitigated the film's narrative shortcomings.

Parenthood is simultaneously extremely exciting and downright terrifying.  I'm truly looking forward to becoming a father and getting the opportunity to share my love of film with my own kids.  That said, don't hold your breath waiting for any such announcement here on this blog.  (Excuse me while I go find some wood to knock furiously on.)  Jamie and I are planning to leave the country at some point in the next few years, and she's made it known that she would like to have kids overseas so they can experience the joys of international travel.  It's not the worst idea I've ever heard, but who knows how it'll eventually go down.

Just ask my parents.  I was supposed to be a beagle.

Title: Conception
Director: Josh Stolberg
Starring: Connie Britton, Julie Bowen, Alan Tudyk, Jonathan Silverman, Gregory Smith, Jason Mantzoukas, Aaron Ashmore, Pamela Adlon, Steve Howey, Sarah Hyland, David Arquette
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

Title: Friends With Kids
Director: Jennifer Westfeldt
Starring: Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Chris O'Dowd, Maya Rudolph, Megan Fox, Edward Burns
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

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