“Friends with Kids” (2012): camera as mirror

20 March 2012

I didn’t hate this movie.

Granted, it’s hard not to feel slightly snarky about it. These people are just so well-heeled, with such glam Manhattan apartments and wardrobes and invisible jobs that seem to pay for all of it. Who hasn’t seen that before?

But that’s not my real problem. I wanted to like it more, because it’s written & directed by Jennifer Westfeldt and features the excellent co-star, Adam Scott (also: great supporting cast, lifted straight outta Bridesmaids). My real problem is with Westfeldt, who shouldn’t direct herself but in insisting on doing so, and empties the film of real feeling for her character.

Westfeldt is now so well known as the longtime partner of Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm that people have forgotten that she co-wrote and directed the pretty good film, Kissing Jessica Stein, back in 2001. Say what you will about the old-saw tropes of 1) Westfeldt as the pretty but neurotic woman and 2) the storyline in which straight girls “try out” lesbianism for a while but reassuringly return to men in the end. (Someday we will laugh so hard at the way Hollywood loved this narrative in the 90s.) It was still a pretty good film and I had hope for this 30-yr-old female director/screenwriter.

Eleven years later … well, let me just say I wanted artistic growth; instead this film feels like a sitcom. Everyone is perfectly pretty and likeable and edgy enough to meet some kind of minimum industry standard.

Adam Scott makes a nice leap from the small screen (he’s so good in the series Party Down, as well as Parks & Recreation) and the rest of the supporting cast (Maya Rudolph, Jon Hamm, Chris O’Dowd, Kristen Wiig) inhabit their roles with that effortless ease you’d expect from actors accustomed to being in front of the camera.

But then there’s Westfeldt. She feels so self-conscious, almost to the point of fading out of view. As a director she gives her co-star much more time to develop than she gives her own character. During a key point in the story — when she’s had a baby and is dieting/ exercising madly to get back into shape for dating, so she can find “the one” (I know, I know, just bear with me for a sec) — she seems to recede entirely into a placeholder. Like her character, Westfeldt seems so preoccupied with looking like she’s 29 rather than her real-life 42, so eager to dodge the humanizing and humbling close-up, that the film gets weaker all around. Is this what happens to a beautiful and talented woman whose male partner rises up to Sexiest Man Alive status?

Yet there are moments when she reveals a delicate presence onscreen that could blossom under the right director — such that as an actor I’d like to see her truly develop into a 40-something actress who feels comfortable in her own skin.

More important, if she took herself offscreen and focused on her writing and directing she could do something less self-consciously awkward and more weighty. Toward the end of the film she directs Adam Scott in a nice series of scenes toward a building passion that feels real and moving. But she doesn’t give herself the same generosity. It’s as if she can’t see herself onscreen as a character — she only sees herself in the mirror, and she’s anxious to make us believe she’s still wrinkle-free.

Jennifer Westfeldt: be your own woman, either as an actor or director. We need you to do something more than fluffy rom-coms; but if that’s your métier, you’ve got to be committed to the genre. Don’t make me write another review that begins, “I didn’t hate this movie” — because I think I really will hate the next one.

3 Responses to ““Friends with Kids” (2012): camera as mirror”

  1. @Rob Says:

    I think you nailed it. I don’t have much to add other than I agree. Her character really bugged me and I felt she was really one dimensional and waaay underdeveloped. I agree she is an attractive woman and what’s wrong with looking 40 anyway?

    There is an article in the upcoming EW about Zoey Deschanel and her character in her TV show “The New Girl” I would love to her your take on the article.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh! I’m going to pay close attention to that. I haven’t watched the show … because if I’m consistent about anything, it’s being late to the party with most TV shows. Except Mad Men — was an early adopter of that one.

      I really think she could be a solid film actor — but not without another director taking charge. And she’s got to be willing to be un-pretty onscreen.

  2. @Rob Says:

    I mean hear not her. Good Grief!

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