In 2001, a quirky romantic comedy called Kissing Jessica Stein debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival to a unanimously positive response. In 2002, it was released to rave reviews from critics. Everyone seemed to love the movie about the Jewish girl, tired of her unlucky bad blind dates with men, who decides to try dating a free-spirited woman. The film brought great attention to its talented unknown star and co-writer Jennifer Westfeldt. Although she continued to make independent films, Westfeldt came into the public eye again when her long-term boyfriend Jon Hamm landed the celebrated role of Don Draper on the Emmy-winning Mad Men. Ten years after her first screening of Kissing Jessica Stein, Westfeldt returned to the Toronto festival with her star-packed directorial debut, Friends With Kids.
The film tells the story of two late-30s best friends Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Parks and Recreation's Adam Scott), who have witnessed their best friends' social and romantic lives deteriorate with the addition of kids. Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd)'s only communication is in the form of screaming while the once spontaneous Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Ben (Jon Hamm) have developed a bitter resentment toward each other. Julie and Jason discuss how they both want kids so badly, but would hate to experience what their friends have gone through. They also don't want to keep waiting for the right person until it is too late, so Jason jokingly suggests they should have a kid together without actually being together because they are friends. However, both of them realize this may be the best way to raise a kid, and still have a romantic life, since they are not romantically interested in each other. The pair decides they will have the kid they both separately wanted and continue to see other people. As time goes by though, Julie and Jason's picture-perfect idea can't hold their expectations, as they realize that having a kid can change the relationship between two life-long friends.
Produced by Jennifer Westfeldt and Jon Hamm, this is still an independent film with a budget of less than $10 million. However, the film is filled with people we all know, including the sought after Megan Fox, as Jason's dancer girlfriend, Mary Jane. Westfeldt, who only finished the script last December, simply nails every aspect of filmmaking with Friends With Kids.
Unless the film is coming out the next weekend, you often don't really know what you are going to see at the film festival. That was the case when I went to see Friends With Kids. All I knew going into it was that I liked Kissing Jessica Stein and I expected the film would be hilarious because of the talented comedians in it, like Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. This is one of the funniest films I have seen all year, but I was not expecting to be in for a lot more than a funny movie. I want to say this is one of the best comedies I have seen this year because the volume of laughter from everyone in TIFF's audience prevented me from hearing what the characters were saying next, but the film was so much more than a good comedy. It's the cleverness in the characters and humorous relatability in their lives that brings out the laughter. The truthfulness instead of the usual absurdity is what sets this film a part from other comedies and makes Friends With Kids a memorable film. There are a few particular scenes that are of a more serious nature, but they are not "dramatic." They're just showing the characters facing the reality of their situation. There is a rare realism that all characters, including the friends with supporting roles, display, showing they are not just there for laughs.
Friends With Kids has an uncommon trait where every single cast member is a joy to watch on screen. SNL marvel Maya Rudolph and her Irish Bridesmaids co-star Chris O'Dowd are hysterically adorable as the loud and loving couple Leslie and Alex. The contrast between the two parents is comically relatable as Rudolph is constantly yelling at Alex while he takes his time reading a magazine in the washroom avoiding her demands. Jon Hamm again steps into the role of the douchebag, but unlike his hilarious role in Bridesmaids, his role as Ben in Friends With Kids is realistically uncaring. The enormously skillful Hamm is very funny but also quite upsetting as the Blackberry-addicted, apathetic husband and father. Kristen Wiig is fantastic in one of her few dramatic roles as Ben's fed-up wife Missy, who receives the most sympathy from the audience.
Megan Fox has played the "hot girl" in almost all of her films, but in Friends With Kids, the same character is for once written for her in a realistic way, with Scott's character literally saying "Oh My God," when he first sees her. Yes, finally another character on screen genuinely recognizes that someone this gorgeous is interacting with them. Many have criticized Fox's acting skills or lack there of. After seeing this film though, one could argue she has not gotten the roles to prove her worth because for the first time, Fox gives a very commendable performance. Taking the layered character written by Westfeldt, Fox is wonderfully funny and very convincing as Mary Jane, Adam Scott's character's girlfriend. Scott, who we now know best for his hilarious weekly performance on Parks and Recreaton, is a good friend of Westfeldt and Hamm and was actually the inspiration for the film's premise. Scott is the best at playing the charming likable guy in much of his work because of his very natural acting we can relate to. Scott shares a perfect humorous and romantic chemistry with Westfeldt, as they portray an incredibly authentic relationship. Westfeldt is the most exceptional as the very talkative adorable Julie and carries the film amazingly from beginning to end. As you see the film from Julie's perspective, you feel extraordinarily connected to Westfeldt's lovable character.
Appearing very modest and a little anxious while introducing the film at the festival, you couldn't help but look at Westfeldt in a completely different light when she came out for the Q&A when the film was over. Westfeldt gives a laudable performance, writes a brilliant script, and delivers a film that combines a bizarre premise with extraordinary sincerity. Just over a week after the premiere at TIFF, Lionsgate announced that they picked up the film for distribution. So everyone has something to look forward to. For now though, as Friends With Kids is one of the best films of the year, let us all give credit to Wonder Woman herself, Jennifer Westfeldt.