As Liz Lemon, the neurotic hub in the chaotic wheel of NBC’s “30 Rock,” Tina Fey exudes a kind of scatterbrained confidence in a persona aware of how her status in life — single in her late 30s — is perceived by some to be a failure. But even as she fights gamely to resist the stereotype, she also wants everything she’s told she should have. As such, Baby Mama is the most natural extension of Fey’s onscreen presence into film and the easiest way for her to continue to mine the comedic ground she’s been successfully tilling for years. The film is about a woman who chooses career placement over starting a family and decides to have a child before it’s physically too late. It’s in the same general ballpark of painful self-examination milked for humor that Fey excels at, but unfortunately, first-time director Michael McCullers doesn’t have the storytelling skill or precision to turn a good idea into a good film, and the only reason the whole thing doesn’t feel like one horribly drawn-out sketch is because of Fey’s inherent charm and timing. The film has all the ingredients of a serviceable comedy, right down to the romantic subplot and the annoyingly predictable betrayal by a secondary character, but the tone never gels for longer than a handful of consecutive scenes.
Baby Mama starts out agreeably enough, with Kate Holbrook (Fey) narrating a rapid sequence of events detailing her rise through the corporate ranks at a health food store and her subsequent decision to focus on work instead of starting a family. “Other women got pregnant; I got promotions,” she says, and she manages to sum up and discard in one sentence her frustration at the fact that her gender required her to delay childbirth in order to get ahead at the office. And just like that, an entire field of dramatic conflict and comedic potential is shut off, as if McCullers, who also wrote the screenplay, decided he had too much on his plate to broaden the comedy to sexual politics. Kate has a typically reliant sister, Caroline (Maura Tierney), and overbearing mom, Rose (Holland Taylor), and the best exchange of the whole film comes (sadly) in the first 15 minutes, when Rose says she accepts Kate and her “alternative lifestyle.” Kate fires back, “Being single is not an alternative lifestyle.” Rose just shrugs and says, “It is when you’re 37.” It’s the kind of pain-fueled joke that makes the comedy just a little more biting and would have gone a long way toward turning the film into a sharp examination of Kate’s later decision to hire a surrogate, but soon enough, McCullers dials down the insight and is content to coast along, settling for wacky when he could have had witty.
Kate’s decision to pursue surrogacy is caused a doctor’s report that her uterus is in bad shape and that Kate is most likely unable to bear a child on her own. She turns for help to an agency that puts her in touch with Angie (Amy Poehler), a dim but sweet woman who “discontinued” high school and lives with her common-law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard). Angie decides to have Kate’s baby, and after a hilarious but brief hospital scene of fertilization set to “Endless Love,” the two women enter into a friendly partnership to see the pregnancy through. Angie breaks up with Carl because she has to; McCullers needs to get the women together enough for their opposite personalities to cook up the aforementioned wackiness, so Angie moves in with Kate and begins to eat better, exercise, and attend birthing classes.
In addition to all that, Kate’s also been flirting with Rob (Greg Kinnear), the owner of a local smoothie store, and soon finds herself juggling Angie, Rob, and a work project to find and develop a new flagship market. On their own, the ideas aren’t too bad, but McCullers’ script isn’t tight enough to provide the requisite energy to keep the disparate storylines advancing in a timely or enjoyable manner. Kate’s blooming relationship with Rob is given short shrift: They go out once, and suddenly they’ve been dating a month; Kate jokes about her age, but no sign is given that their relationship is headed toward anything more serious than making out on a park bench; Kate spends so little time dealing with work and suffers so little when she’s late or absent that her efforts to oversee the new store are pointless distractions to the core plots dealing with her life, baby, and boyfriend. It’s almost as if McCullers was afraid to let the main story carry itself or didn’t know to how to let that happen; either way, the legitimate humor and chemistry between Fey and Poehler is often buried under a mound of poor editing and lazy writing. The mere fact that Carl continues to show up and do his best to ruin things proves that McCullers couldn’t figure out how to have Kate and Angie grow together or apart on their own.
The rest of the film plays out in often regrettably predictable ways, and it’s tough to see such blunt and unpolished material handed to gifted comedians like Fey and Poehler. Granted, the sheer force of their personalities provides the film with a likeability that few other actresses could create, and the best scenes in the film are when Kate and Angie are finally allowed to interact on a genuine level and let the action be guided by natural extensions of their characters and not the story points McCullers feels he needs to hit. That’s the greatest disappointment about Baby Mama. Despite a respectable comedic pedigree among the cast and crew, the finished product doesn’t hold up. Fey’s former “Saturday Night Live” colleagues Fred Armisen and Will Forte breeze through in a couple of easy supporting roles, and Steve Martin gives a subtly absurd performance as Fey’s hippie boss. Kinnear is affable and kind, but he’s more of a placeholder than anything else; it’s revealed later in the game that Rob has a 12-year-old daughter, but she never appears because Kate was never going to meet her boyfriend’s kid. She just needed to deal with the possible complication in the abstract, and once she embraced the idea, the conflict disappeared. McCullers didn’t want Kate to grow, just to think about it.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Labor Pangs
Film | April 25, 2008 | Comments ()