Caught an Austin sneak screening of Baby Mama on Tuesday night, and I’m not totally sure what to make of the movie. It’s certainly funny and even very funny at moments, but it also feels like a retread. Mere months after the year that gave us Juno and Knocked Up, are audiences ready for yet another mainstream pregnancy comedy? I have little doubt that crowds will eat it up, but how much? The premise of the film (Tina Fey’s single workaholic enlists working-class Amy Poehler as a surrogate mother) has a sort of sitcom charm that gets much further than it should because of the performances. If there’s one indisputable fact about Baby Mama, it’s that the film clearly identifies Tina Fey as a star-in-the-making. Already beloved by the too-small audiences of 30 Rock (and, prior to that, Saturday Night Live), Fey takes hold of the film and carries it well.
Amy Poehler, on the other hand, doesn’t succeed. She’s a gifted comedian and talented at playing diverse characters. In Baby Mama, though, you’re never quite sure what character she’s portraying. She straddles the middle of the road, all but neglecting opportunities to fully explore the dynamics of a woman that is said to be “white trash” and “uneducated,” but she never displays much behavior to prove it. On paper, Poehler is the antithesis, and instead plays the role safe and politically correct. It could have been a tour de force comedy performance, and it’s more like a missed opportunity. Better performances come from the supporting players, including a scene-stealing Steve Martin as Fey’s boss (the head of a Whole Foods-like chain) and the underrated Romany Malco as Fey’s helpful doorman.
While much of the film’s story is predictable (even some of the “plot twists”), I’ll hand it to writer/director Michael McCullers (who is a very talented comedy writer) for avoiding a few easy directions. Unfortunately, in Baby Mama, that special brand of absurdity that McCullers, Fey, and Poehler do best, takes a back seat.