Thursday, July 31, 2008

Review - Baby Mama

In the past year, a handful of American comedies have drawn their laughs from the trials and tribulations of having a baby. Baby Mama is a little different to the likes of Knocked Up, Juno and Waitress though; while those films dealt with the fallout from unplanned pregnancies, this amiable effort is more concerned with the desperate need to have a child. The directorial debut from Saturday Night Live writer Michael McCullers stars Tina Fey as upwardly mobile businesswoman Kate Holbrook. She's a top executive for the Round Earth organic food corporation, but her personal life is predictably less successful. She's 37, single, and pining for a baby, a desire she spells out in all-too-honest way early in the film, leaving the poor man she's on a date with running for the exit. IVF treatment doesn't work for Kate ("I just don't like your uterus" a doctor repeatedly tells her), and her adoption enquires get lost in a mountain of red tape, so she decides to give surrogacy a try, eventually striking a deal with bubbly, naïve blonde named Angie (Amy Poehler).

Angie and Kate couldn't be more different, and that's the basic concept for Baby Mama in a nutshell; it's The Odd Couple with a highflying yuppie and white trash bimbo replacing Oscar and Felix. Angie moves into Kate's apartment when she splits up with her cheating boyfriend (Dax Shepherd), and standard culture-clash hi-jinks ensue, with Angie not taking kindly to Kate's healthy, sterile lifestyle, and Kate being appalled by the behaviour of her messy, lazy houseguest. McCullers doesn't bring any imagination to bear on this already stale scenario, and while his script does take the opportunity to satirically snip at various aspects of 21st century parenting, these sideswipes are pretty weak. A sharper, more experienced filmmaker may have squeezed more juice out of Baby Mama's screenplay, but McCullers' direction barely rises above sitcom level, with basic staging and an over-reliance on Jeff Richmond's syrupy score to highlight the film's emotional beats. The central narrative follows an obvious arc, with Kate and Angie growing together – one learning to loosen up, the other to mature – and although McCullers does have one plot twist up his sleeve, it doesn't do much to derail the film's disappointingly sappy ending.

In spite of all this, I laughed a lot at Baby Mama. It's not a great film by any means, but it's a damn funny one in places, and most of the time its flaws are gracefully covered by the superb central partnership of Fey and Poehler. The pair's contrasting characters meld brilliantly, and they successfully suggest a semblance of genuine feeling in both their friendship and their confrontations. Poehler has previously been seen hanging around the edges of films like Blades of Glory, and she makes the most of her step up to a more substantial role with a fantastic comic turn. She plays Angie in broad strokes but she always ensures the character retains a sweetness and likability that pulls her away from caricature. Many of the film's most notable moments, such as Angie struggling to cope with Kate's childproof toilet or trying to disguise her identity when Kate's boyfriend turns up at the apartment, are scenes which are elevated a couple of notches through Poehler's efforts alone. Alongside her, Fey is essentially playing the straight foil in this comic partnership, and it's a role she's more than capable of fulfilling. Baby Mama offers Fey the opportunity to play it safe while making her transition to the big screen, with the character of Kate Holbrook being almost indistinguishable from 30 Rock's Liz Lemon, and while it might have been nice to see Fey stretch her wings a little more, she's undeniably great at what she does.

In fact, Baby Mama could have surely benefitted from getting more out of Fey on the writing side of the project. She has already dealt with the theme of baby obsession in a 30 Rock episode – which was much funnier and more pointed than this – and it would have been interesting to see where she might have taken the scenario Baby Mama offers, with the hope that she'd avoid driving the film into the lame, sentimental cul-de-sac it eventually settles in. There was the potential for a far more interesting film in here somewhere, and Baby Mama does feel rather insipid after more daring pictures like Knocked Up, but it's a hard film to dislike, and it has at least one attribute that both surprised and delighted me. While there are fine comic performances all over the picture – from Fey, Poehler, Romany Malco and Sigourney Weaver – the biggest joy of Baby Mama was seeing a once-great talent finding some semblance of his old magic. Yes, that's an uncredited, ponytail-wearing Steve Martin as Kate's dippy, new age boss, and this scene-stealing cameo allows him to be hilarious for the first time in many, many years. A look at Martin's last decade in film is a profoundly depressing experience, but this is the sort of part he needs to get his career back on track: small, cleverly constructed character roles in films that make good use of his particular presence and delivery. Alas, The Pink Panther 2 is already in development, but at least Baby Mama suggests that Martin is still interested in giving us more.