Friday, May 30, 2008

In Theaters: Baby Mama

Poster from
BABY MAMA is the sort of film that’s just good enough as to make you wonder why it’s not better. The pairing of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler is a promising one; not only did they have great rapport hosting Weekend Update on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, but Fey of course not only headed up that show but the inexplicably funny 30 ROCK as well, while Poehler is a veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe. Of course, neither of them wrote this picture, which seems like a wasted opportunity, though WGA rules being what they are I’m sure they contributed something and simply haven’t gotten the credit for it. This is a predictable film, and I know I just gave the new INDIANA JONES a pass for that so I can’t be too harsh, but this time the material really does feel stifled by the formula; the plot is by-the-numbers when it doesn’t need to be, and the whole thing depends on its cast to elevate it above average. Which they do, mind you, and I don’t want to overload this piece with vitriol; this is a recommendation, just more qualified than most.

Fey plays Katie Holbrook, an executive at the Round Earth organic foods company headed by an egomaniacal New Ager (Steve Martin). She’s in her late thirties and wanting to have a baby, but quickly discovers that conditions in her womb make conception unlikely. Fortunately for her she discovers a company that provides surrogates, who take the mother’s fertilized eggs and carry them to term, for a hefty fee. Holbrook’s surrogate is Angie Ostrowski (Poehler), a white trash girl with a basically good heart and a sleazy common-law husband (Dax Shepard). Things hit a wrinkle when Angie breaks up with her partner and has to stay at Katie’s apartment; not only is it a classic Felix-and-Oscar situation, but in this case Oscar is carrying Felix’s child. Katie tries to steer Angie onto the path of responsible motherhood, with health drinks and prenatal classes, while also overseeing the building of a new Round Earth store in the city. (Which city I’ve actually forgotten.)

There’s one complication that I actually didn’t see coming at the time, and don’t want to spoil since it is a good one. The structure is off, though, and the plot burdens itself with an adequately written but still not very exciting romance between Katie and a handsome juice store employee (Greg Kinnear) who never quite manages a full personality though he comes close. The plot flails around more uncertainly as the action proceeds, as though writer/director Michael McCullers wasn’t entirely sure where he wanted to go with this. We even get a scene of the two girls singing to a popular song (albeit through a karaoke video game), and a courtroom scene near the end.

Of course, even if the story moves along predictable lines, there are still some fine comic performances to take in. Fey and Poehler are a great team, each knowing just how to play off the other. The film comes alive when they’re together, especially when there aren’t any other significant characters around to confuse things. A scene in which Angie drags Katie out to a club is particularly entertaining (and not just because Fey wears a low-cut dress.) Steve Martin’s work here is a nice reminder of his skills as a comedian, which have sadly been obscured by some bad role choices as of late- he’s playing off his classic blasé and self-absorbed persona, to good effect. A number of SNL alumni pop up here and there (Lorne Michaels was an executive producers), as do Maura Tierney and John Hodgman (at least I don’t think they’ve ever been on the show.) And Dax Shepard continues to be a comic actor worth keeping an eye on.

I think my major issue with the film is not so much the plot per se as the realization I had about two-thirds of the way through that it was headed for a cloyingly conventional resolution. A wealthy single woman hiring a poor woman as a surrogate for her baby is a situation replete with all kinds of sexual and social politics, and though I wasn’t expecting anything too envelope-pushing, Fey and Poehler’s presence had me hoping for something a little less tidy and a little more subversive. Some of that anarchic wit comes through in the dialogue, and this is certainly a clever film- it’s just not a daring one.

Still, one out of two isn’t bad, and BABY MAMA manages to be funny and get you to like the characters enough to stay with them for a couple of hours. It’s forgettable but fun, and though I can hope that Fey and Poehler will find a better vehicle, this at least proves they can carry a picture by themselves. If you’re a fan of either or both actresses it’s worth seeing, and if not, well, I’m not sure I want to know you.

Written and Directed by Michael McCullers
Grade: B-

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