Eighty-seventh time’s the charm.
Maybe we haven’t seen quite that many movies recently about pregnant single women. It probably just seems that in the past year virtually every romantic comedy has been about some waitress named Juno getting knocked up. And she didn’t plan to get pregnant, doesn’t really want the baby, but because she has a strong will and nurturing instincts she’ll never-ever give it up. Practically the funniest thing about these movies is the sociopolitical spin Hollywood implants in them: that accidental motherhood is the new feminism.
Baby Mama to the rescue! The movie, written and directed by Saturday Night Live scribe Michael McCullers, dares to imagine that somewhere in this world of carelessly, ceaselessly fertile females there might be one woman who wants a baby but can’t have it. Her name is Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey), she’s 37, lives in Philadelphia, has an OK job working for a goofy whole-foods guru (Steve Martin), yet feels somehow empty: no man, no marriage and especially no baby. “I just don’t like your uterus,” her gynecologist (John Hodgman) tells her, adding that Kate has a one-in-a-million chance of ever getting pregnant. (You should be able to guess Act Three from here.) So she engages Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a white-trashy girl from the nearby town of Dreery, to be the child’s surrogate mother. When she breaks up with her loutish boyfriend Carl (Dax Shepard), slobby Angie moves in with neatnik Kate. In social aptitude, one woman is the baby, the other the mama.
Except for the natural nine-month dramatic arc (which is what attracts writers to the pregnancy plot), this is prime-time sitcom fodder. Oscar and Felix; Kate and Angie. I’m not making claims that Baby Mama transcends the format’s routine progressions opposites not only attract, they learn from each other only that, within these conventions, the movie is smart, funny and beguiling. Hitting familiar buttons isn’t a sin if the exercise is carried off expertly, as it is here. And the two stars, deprived of the opportunity for girlish giggling they took undue advantage of as SNL’s Weekend Update anchors, relax into their characters, give them a dimension precisely as real as this kind of movie requires.
McCullers’ best trick is to keep viewers unsure of which side they should be on, before they realize the story’s not about confrontation but collaboration. Neither character is a caricature. Kate could be the snooty Bryn Mawr deb of old movies the one whose class prejudices must be exposed by the working-class hero or heroine but no, she’s decent, patient and hard-working. (And unexpectedly curvy-sexy, in the mandatory straight-girl-has-to-get-drunk-and-go-crrraaazy scene.) Most of all, Kate wants only what’s best for her baby, even if it drives the surrogate mom nuts.
As for Angie, she could be a Conshohocken crumpet, the idiot spawn of two siblings, the ramshackle hovel in which Kate’s baby is imprisoned. Instead, she’s spirited, resourceful and crafty of mouth, always ready to parry an accusation with some counterfeit common sense. She’s also smart enough to overcome the garbage education daytime TV has saddled her with. The meeting of disparate souls brings with it the inevitable apology swap. Kate: “I’m sorry I called you stupid.” Angie: “I’m sorry I farted into your purse.”
Much is made of the regimen Kate wants to put her surrogate on. Angie argues that a package of food stamped “organic” kind of defeats its own purpose if it deprives consumers of the basic allure of food: yumminess. As she opines, “That crap’s for rich people who hate themselves.” And later: “I’m not tryin’ to be dramatic, but I would rather be shot in the face than eat this food.” Why shouldn’t she stick to her diet of Dr. Pepper, Pringles, TastyKakes, Red Bull and the occasional cigarette? And when threats don’t work, Angie tries logic: “There’s a thing called being too healthy. That’s what killed Bruce Lee.” (It was more likely a brain aneurysm.) Angie/Amy may lose this debate on points but she wins on presentation, because she looks slim, radiant, great. If junk food is what got her that body, plenty of women watching will say, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
The rules of romantic comedy stipulate that Kate must stumble across, initially resist, then fall into the arms of a perfect guy. That would be Rob (Greg Kinnear), who runs a fruit-drink shop in the neighborhood where Kate’s boss is erecting one of his pricey stores. Fortunately, that subplot lasts for about three minutes, and Kinnear can return to exuding his trademark mixture of blithe assurance and brow-furrowing self-depreciation. For this attractive actor, it’s a blessing and a curse: he’s got the perfect romantic-comedy skills, but he’s in the one decade when the genre isn’t flourishing. Fred MacMurray, Ray Milland and many lesser lights built long careers without the charm Kinnear has shown in As Good As It Gets, Sabrina, Nurse Betty and Feast of Love. His appeal is an anachronism; perhaps he should go back to playing the suburban sexaholic he did in Autofocus. Or maybe his domesticated grace is more suited for a high-quality sitcom.
Of course Baby Mama isn’t his movie. It’s a chick flick, with the emphasis on the hatching. Comedies almost always run out of gas toward the end; the writer is like a parent on Christmas Eve, desperately wrapping up his presents. But this movie finds one last spurt to send the characters and the audience out happy. The closing-credits song, the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” never seemed more welcome or appropriate. For this is a comedy with the old-time blend of wit and sentiment. Years from now, when you stumble across it on TV, you could persuade yourself that, back in the two-thousand-oughts, they made pretty good movies.