Friday, April 25, 2008

"Baby Mama" -- * * *

Though very noticeably NOT written by Tina Fey, Michael McCullers's "Baby Mama" is an often very funny, entertaining comedy that is most successful as a showcase for two remarkably talented comic actresses, Fey and Amy Poehler. Though I've been longtime fans of both, I thought the trailer for the movie looked "kind-of funny" at best, and I thought it had potential to be either mildly cute and amusing, or disappointingly bland. I will concede that it could have been a bit edgier, and taken a little more acidic look at the world of baby-craving women than it does, but I found myself smiling or chuckling most of the way. It's fairly broad and mainstream, but strikes just the right balance between smart and stupid, never going overboard on either.

Less a baby-making farce than a romantic comedy between two heterosexual women, "Baby Mama" begins with a voice-over narration from our leading lady, 37-year-old Kate (Fey), explaining her various travails to us. She apparently was too busy with a career to have a baby early in life, and now that she's willing to, she's essentially infertile (apparently brought on by fertility drugs mom took to have her). While working in a high level position at the WholeFoods-esque "Round Earth," Kate seeks alternate methods, eventually deciding on a surrogate to have her baby for her, namely Angie (Poehler), an essentially good-hearted, possibly functionally retarded white trash woman equipped with a slacker common law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard). When Angie abruptly leaves Carl, she needs a place to stay and forces herself upon Kate. With the latter insistent upon her baby's temporary residence being handled with care, she ultimately finds herself monitoring Angie's behavior, diet, etc. Angie, in turn, makes Kate loosen up a little bit and indulges her more "fun" impulses, while the businesswoman deals with developing a new supermarket, and engages in a romance with Rob (Greg Kinnear), the manages of the Jamba Juice competitor, Super Fruity. It's all a very conventional, movie-ish, give-and-take thing that we go along with because the actresses and the script make it work.

McCullers has proven in the past that he's a funny guy. While the less said about the third installment the better, his work on the first two "Austin Powers" films was effortlessly funny, and his "Undercover Brother" is one of the most underrated comedies in the last decade or so. While he still has some things to correct as time goes on (he indulges in some amateurish directorial exercises), "Baby Mama" makes a fine directorial debut for him. He generally keeps things moving, rarely lets a joke go on a beat longer than it needs to, and has a clever way of handling familiarity; the egg implantation sequence with Fey and Poehler set to "Endless Love" is particularly inspired. He sometimes is overreliant on manipulative music cues, but if the directing sometimes falters, his writing makes up for it.

Though one can't help thinking throughout how different the film would be if Fey was behind it, the screenplay does a really nice job balancing broad humor (e.g.: that peeing in the sink joke you've seen in all the ads) and clever jokes (a very funny bit at a vegan restaurant). The movie is funny and witty enough to not feel dumbed-down for the masses, yet should appeal to those who feel like they don't always "get" "30 Rock." I worried the movie would pander too much to this audience, but it treads the line delicately enough that no one on either side should feel insulted or left out. There are some big laughs here, but there's also some funny little character details (Kate has post-its around her bathroom with stuff like "Yes!" and "Be Fertile!"written on them) and randomness that I particularly enjoyed. Kate's observation, when playing an 'American Idol' karaoke game, that "My avatar's dressed like a whore!," and Angie 's naivety when it comes to "America's Funniest Home Videos" are the sort of stuff that keeps "Baby Mama" from ever feeling lazy or an improper utilization of these two ladies' talents.

Starting together on "SNL," and eventually sharing the Weekend Update desk, Poehler and Fey have been friends for years, and their natural interplay makes that apparent. The two have an amazing chemistry together, managing to make the other one funnier, and the screenplay understands both of their strengths. I kept waiting for a character trait to be revealed distinguishing Kate from her "30 Rock" character, but nope; Fey is by all means playing Liz Lemon, and there's nothing wrong with that. The recent SAG award winner clearly enjoys playing the straight woman, and she's terrific at it. She still gets of many a one-liner with delivery that only enhances them ("I think she wants me to rub olive oil on your taint!"), but she wisely lets Poehler be the wacky woman at the movie's core. Kate's down-to-earth relatability serves as a perfect counterbalance to Angie, and not only because it makes them more of an "odd couple." I don't know if "Baby Mama" will be successful enough to spawn a sequel, but I'd be shocked if this is the last movie we see these two paired together in.

After toiling away, being the bright spot on "SNL" for years now (her recent embodiment of Cristian from "Project Runway" was brilliant) and still actively helping the live improv community flourish, big-screen success has largely eluded Poehler. Lately, she's made the most of bit parts in movies ("Southland Tales," "Mr. Woodcock," "Shrek the Third"), but I've long awaited a part that would take advantage of the hugely gifted Poehler's comic skills. Here, with a character seemingly tailor-made for her, she finally gets one. Angie rarely approaches any sort of depth, but Poehler turns her potentially one-note white trash predictability into a character that's human and hilarious, even if she did occasionally remind me of the one-legged diabetic she played on "SNL's" "The Bachelor" parody. Whether she's misunderstanding the dynamics of Tom and Jerry ("They love each other!") or simply singing "She Bangs" at karaoke, she rarely misses the opportunity to make something funnier. The woman just makes me laugh, I can't help it. Even when given kinda conventional material (e.g.: that peeing in the sink bit), she turns it into something hysterical with her deer-in-the-headlights look, or dumbfounded delivery. The jokes are usually good, but often, she's what makes things funny, not necessary the writing. Most of the huge laughs here belong to her, and I wouldn't be surprised if this is the beginning of bigger roles for her

"Baby Mama" greatly benefits from a supporting cast that actually lives up to the phrase "scene-stealers" with most being used to terrific effect. In her few scenes, Sigourney Weaver displays perfect comedic timing as surrogacy center CEO Chaffee Bicknell, whose inexplicable post-menopausal hyper-fertility seems like nature's way of taunting Kate. With photos in her office of her alongside the Dalai Lama and Hillary Clinton, Chaffee is clearly meant to represent women who smugly hold their babies as power/status symbols over others, and Weaver plays her hilariously. Though 100% omitted from the ads, Kinnear's supporting role is sizable, and even though he's playing the ill-defined male love interest, he manages to make Rob affable without making him bland; that said, I hope this doesn't represent a decrease in central roles for the often-underrated actor. Holland Taylor is momentarily funny ("Don't [adopt] a black baby," she warns) as Kate's mother but gets too little to do, and similarly, Maura Tierney is wasted in another barely there role as Kate's sister. This is her second non-comedic-character-in-a-comedy after "Semi-Pro," and I've got to say, filmmakers really should avoid using her this way. This girl's got mad comic skillz, yo-- just watch "Newsradio." Utilize them!

Also (carefully) left out of the trailer is Steve Martin in a very, very funny supporting turn as Kate's pompous, hippy-dippy, eco-friendly boss who beings conversations saying things like "I was swimming with the dolphins this morning in Costa Rica..." Martin isn't a major presence in the movie, but he gets a lot of funny material (at one point, he "rewards" Kate with five minutes of unbroken eye contact), and appears to be enjoying himself more on screen than he has since the '90s. Also, while it may only be an elite portion of the audience, anyone who's ever been to Poehler's Upright Citizens Brigade's theatre on 26th street is going to see a lot of faces they recognize here. Numerous dudes from the NYC improv scene show up in bit parts (most memorably, Jason Mantzoukas as a "manorexic"), and it's nice to see Fey and Poehler calling their less-famous friends to funny up their movie.

Though reviews have turned more towards the favorable as of late, early word on "Baby Mama" was mixed, and I think I know exactly why: the third act. I was never bored, or waiting for the film to end-- I was in it all the way through-- but in the final 30 minutes, the big laughs of the first hour subside a bit, and McCullers feels the need to have the third act do what third acts are expected to do (i.e.: fighting, complications, lovey-dovey montages, character revelations). To be clear, there are still jokes that hit in this portion, but they're more intermittent, broken up by the need to adequately wrap up the story.

It'd be nice if it kept up the comic momentum of the first hour, but "Baby Mama" builds up enough goodwill and enough big laughs in its first two-thirds to make it worth a trip to the theater. I doubt you're going to encounter many people talking about how they loved it, but there's so much here that works, it's tough to not at least enjoy the proceedings. With a comedic ensemble to rival most anything to come out lately, and script that actually gives them good material to work with, it's a crowd pleaser that will certainly make for at least a funnier girls night (though guys who don't mind how much estrogen is on display here will still laugh a lot) out than the "Sex and the City" movie.


Post a Comment

<< Home