I’ve read a significant amount of behavioral economic research on the subject, and these studies have consistently shown that childless couples have a statistically better quality of life than those couples with children. They have more money, they have more time, and overall, they are happier than their child-rearing counterparts. Couples with children tend to be cash-strapped, exhausted, have less time, and engage in more arguments.
But, if you were to ask couples with children how happy they are, almost all of them would flat-out lie to you and tell you that raising children is the greatest experience of their lives. There are two issues at play that these scientific studies do not pick up: A certain ethereal satisfaction with raising children that can’t be accounted for statistically, and, of course, denial. Parents have a huge capacity for denial, which allows someone sleeping three hours a night, who spends a quarter of his waking hours changing diapers, who hasn’t had sex in a month, or who hasn’t left the house for anything other than work and grocery buying in a year to say that he’s never been happier. Denial is a crucial element of the human race; it’s kept our species alive, and more importantly, it allows we parents to believe we are happier than our childless friends, even if the evidence proves otherwise.
I’m writing this review as someone who has never been happier in his life.
Our childless friends, however, are not as stupid as we are. They can see what a miserable experience raising a child is without the filter of denial: They see us covered in spit-up and shit, bags around the eyes, the rapid aging, and the fact that we haven’t had a decent social engagement in weeks. Subconsciously, parents feel it, too, which is why we try so hard to pull our childless friends into the fray. Several months ago, when TK told me that his wife was pregnant, I expressed immense happiness and joy for him, which I honestly felt. But I’m sure that, subconsciously, part of my happiness stemmed from the fact that I knew that TK and his wife would be dragged down into the morass. Misery loves company, and nothing fuels a married couple with children more than misery of others: It’s a welcome distraction from our own lives. Observe any married couple, and you’ll notice that they’re never happier than when gossiping about another married couple.
Jennifer Westfeldt’s Friends with Kids attempts to explore this phenomena, and does an absolutely dreadful job of it. It’s clear that Westfeldt, who has been in a childless relationship with Jon Hamm for 14 years, wrote Friends with Kids from that perspective. There’s a certain hostility for the married couples in the film — Chris O’Dowd and Maya Rudolph’s characters are unhappily married, while Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm’s characters openly despise one another — and if the film had simply been from that viewpoint, it might have at least presented some interesting ideas about child-rearing couples’ capacity for denial. It might have also meant more screen time for the only characters in Friends with Kids who are the least bit interesting: Those miserable couples experiencing the waves of denial.
Unfortunately, Westfeldt’s film quickly segues to one of the lamest, dumbest high concepts for a romantic comedy since the last lamest, dumbest idea for a high-concept comedy. Indeed, the difference between a shitty, generic high-concept romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Friends with Kids is considerably less than you’d think. An all-star comedic cast featuring Hamm, Wiig, O’Dowd, Rudolph, and Adam Scott should, in theory, set Friends with Kids apart from, say, The Switch, but the distinction is negligible. For all the talent involved, Friends with Kids is surprisingly bad, yet another formulaic romance driven by an over-eager, presumptuous, almost hostile fuck-you to couples with children and compounded by overall lousy writing, uninspired direction and a wan, misplaced performance from its lead. The problem, indeed, with Friends with Kids is its writer/director/star, Westfeldt, who 10 years ago gave us the surprisingly adorable Kissing Jessica Stein, itself a rather formulaic romantic-comedy wrapped up in a bisexual thrill that carried it through.
Westfeldt was under the apparent misconception, however, that collecting four of the principal players from Bridesmaids, plus Scott and Megan Fox, could somehow obscure her own lousy uninspired work, as she managed so successfully with the lesbian tryst in Jessica Stein. It doesn’t get her far in Friends with Kids, however, because so much of the action is focused on her. She’s not leading-lady material, and the talent (and Hollywood aesthetic) gap between her and the supporting players is so embarrassing as to highlight the fact that the rest of the cast — all at the peaks of their careers — were clearly pulled in as some sort of misguided favor to Hamm.
The movie stars Westfeldt and Scott as Julie and Jason, lifelong best friends who have never felt an inkling of romantic attraction to one another. Julie is too particular about men to settle down with anyone, while Jason’s commitment-phobe is into large-breasted disposable women. (Not traits one would normally associate with an Adam Scott character; playing against type here fails miserably.) Once their married friends begin to breed, however, Julie and Jason feel compelled to have children of their own, but they have no significant others which which to procreate. The gimmick: They’ll skip the romance and simply have a kid together as friends, that way they get all the benefits of raising a child without any of the drawbacks of those miserable fucking marriages.
It’s a perfect plan, except that it isn’t. The brilliant strategy works only up until Julie and Jason begin dating other people, which of course presents their family with all the other problems that miserable married couples experience before a divorce, only it’s all horribly caricatured and mostly unfunny, as though written by a studio hack instead of Jon fucking Hamm’s girlfriend.
Westfeldt’s perspective on married couples with kids, while exaggerated and presumptuous almost to the point of offensiveness, is the most successful part of Friends with Kids, in part because it allows the movie to focus on Hamm, Wigg, Rudolph, and O’Dowd, who do the best with the little with which they have to work. Unfortunately, it only occupies about 15 percent of the movie.
The rest is focused on the formula-driven romance between Julie and Jason, and while it’s nice to believe — with the talent involved, and the independent nature of the film — that Westfeldt could buck the formula, she instead clutches onto it with the white-knuckled fervor of an insecure screenwriter who is terrified of trying to say anything new or interesting. She does a huge disservice to the rest of the cast, and by the end of Friends with Kids, she’s reduced poor Scott to meager, poorly-written Ashton Kutcher archetype delivering maybe the worst big gesture romantic-comedy speech in years. He clinches the deal with what Westfeldt must have believed was her “You had me at ‘Hello’ ” moment, this obnoxious, cringe-worthy refrain: “I want to fuck the shit out of you.” Scott, who is one-half of one of the most endearing couples on television, deserves far better than this, as does everyone else in the film save for Westfeldt, who shipwrecks the rest of the cast on her lonely island of incompetence. Maybe one day she and Hamm will have children and maybe then she’ll finally understand the miserable happiness of the experience enough to say something insightful, or at least something funny with a crumb of emotional truth to it. Friends with Kids is not that film: It’s a hollowed-out, predictable, overly-long and crass sell-out film that unfairly trades on our affection for the cast.