While it's not a great film, "Friends With Kids" is notable because it does something right that a lot of hip American comedies this year have done very, very wrong: show how a new generation of 20- and 30-somethings are rewriting the rules of marriage. "No Strings Attached" and "Friends With Benefits" tried and failed to offer some insight into the relationship-free relationship, and "The Change-Up" timidly attempted to address the difficulties of being monogamous. In the end, though, they were all conventional Hollywood comedies preaching the tried-and-true values of good ol' fashioned love. "Friends With Kids" has a sitcom-y sheen and follows a somewhat predictable trajectory, but writer-director Jennifer Westfeldt at least looks at the challenge of relationships with some honesty. For once, younger audiences may see something of themselves up there on the screen.
With a setup that feels reminiscent of any New York rom-com of the last 10 years, Jason (Adam Scott) and Julie (Westfeldt) are single best friends who have never dated because there's no spark there. Unfortunately, they're the only people in their group of friends -- which includes married couples Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd) and Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) -- who haven't settled down and started having kids. Not wanting the demands and tedium of marriage but interested in raising a child, Jason and Julie decide to get pregnant but not pursue any romantic relationship. They'll just be friends who share custody of a child but keep their own separate places and continue dating whomever they want. You could call it "Friends With Benefits With a Kid."
Obviously, Jason and Julie's plan won't get as smoothly as they anticipate, but unlike this year's other "progressive" comedies, Westfeldt has actually gone to the trouble to create some likable characters whose fears about commitment and growing old alone have some real resonance to them. A lot of romantic comedies start off with opposite-sex best friends who realize, almost too late, that they should be together, but "Friends With Kids" is less about Jason and Julie maybe getting together as it is the steps in their individual evolutions that help them decide exactly what they want in life.
As an added bonus, this may be one of the wiser marriage movies I've seen in a while. Actually, the Toronto Film Festival boasts two such films: this and Sarah Polley's quite good "Take This Waltz." Rather than showing marriage as a barren wasteland that resembles the bickering on "King of Queens," "Friends With Kids" has a nice push-and-pull dynamic going on within its two married couples, who clearly love each other but also have to face some hardships if they're going to last. Again, none of this is incredibly profound or groundbreaking, but beneath Westfeldt's film's shiny exterior there's real feeling. Especially in comparison to last year's "Life As We Know It" -- another comedy about an unconventional man-and-woman-with-kid scenario -- "Friends With Kids" seems incredibly mature and thoughtful for a date-night flick.
A lot of credit has to go to the cast, particularly Adam Scott as the serial-dating, cynical Jason. We know this character from a thousand other movies, and we're pretty sure how he's going to change, but Westfeldt gives him enough shading to make that transformation a lot less certain. Anyone who's seen Scott in "Party Down" or "Parks and Recreation" knows how good he is, but "Friends With Kids" gives him room to be a real romantic lead, and he's an absolute natural at it. The movie's back-and-forth banter can be as gratingly cutesy as anything you see on television, but Scott makes even the most formulaic bits work. It's amazing how much romantic comedies boil down to chemistry. In the end, you either want these people to be happy, or you just don't care. Even while watching "Friends With Kids," I could see how predictable it is in many ways. But there's a spark of the real to it. And I think you'll legitimately want these people to end up happy.