Progressive families have been fertile ground for American sitcoms like "Will & Grace" and "Modern Family." That Jennifer Westfeldt's "Friends with Kids" successfully translates the appeal into feature-length format doesn't exactly make it a great movie, but it's a genuinely entertaining look at young people contemplating the next phases of their lives. The film isn't particularly memorable or enlightening, and it lacks a consistent point of view about the family dynamic at its core, but it also manages to be reasonably satisfying precisely because Westfeldt never tries to overextend herself.
The writer-director co-stars as Julie, a chatty bachelorette whose only unmarried friend is smooth-talking womanizer Jason (Adam Scott). Their social lives find them in close contact with two seemingly stable couples, the uber-horny Ben and Missy (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) as well as the easygoing Leslie and Alex (Maya Rudolph and Chris O'Dowd). When both couples announce they're expecting, Julie and Jason immediately assume their pals are doomed.
"Nothing's going to change," the couples insist; flash forward to four years later. Having witnessed their pals' downward spiral into frustrated domesticity, Julie and Jason devise a solution that satisfies their shared desire to raise a child without falling into the same trap: They agree to have a baby, but not to become a couple.
"This is the worst idea I've ever heard," Ben admits. However, initially it seems they've cracked the code. Their child, who moves from infant to a toddler over the course of a few scenes, benefits from two households and parents willing to split the burden without sacrificing their respective dating lives. Over time, however, the trick shows its seams. Eventually, the characters feel they must either move in together or end their friendship. It's a neat hook that's commercial to a fault, but it's rescued by a solid set of performances.
Overall, "Friends with Kids" maintains a superficial appeal on par with the kind of amiable romantic comedies that Ed Burns churns out in his sleep. Appropriately, Burns surfaces in the cast as the older man that Julie begins dating just as Jason falls into a steamy affair with a luscious dancer (Megan Fox). Guilt and jealously bubbles to the surface in a fairly obvious fashion, but the middle section contains a perceptive look at varying approaches to family life before it heads toward the supremely predictable conclusion.
"The set-up is flawed," Jason says about conventional family life, although he's not necessarily sure he knows to fix it. Erring on the side of caution, "Friends with Kids" backs down from its progressive stance and embraces traditionalist values. That's a shame, because Westfeldt comes close to upending expectations and pushing the romantic comedy in a fresh direction. But just when she heads into territory worthy of exploration, she pulls a U-turn back to the same old routine.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With its cast of familiar faces and commercial genre, "Friends with Kids" is destined for a sizable release and solid box office reception, despite mixed critical reception.