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Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: Baby Mama (2008)

* * 1/2

Director: Michael McCullers
Starring: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler

Baby Mama is a funny, if soft, film about one woman’s quest to have a baby. It’s not entirely successful as a film – its flaws are many and in some cases glaring – but it has its heart in the right place and provides a nice showcase for two female performers who know what most modern comedies seem to have forgotten – that when it comes to women “funny” and “clumsy” aren’t the same thing.

The story begins with Kate (Tina Fey), the 37-year-old V.P. of an organic food company who, after several unsuccessful attempts to conceive, decides to have a baby using a surrogate mother. She goes to Chaffee Bicknell, a company named after its eternally fertile head, played by Sigourney Weaver. Through the agency, Kate is paired with Angie (Amy Poehler), whose breakup with her ne’er do well boyfriend (Dax Sheppard) will result in her moving in with Kate. Kate and Angie have an Odd Couple-like (Odd Couple-lite?) relationship where Kate’s Type A tendencies come into conflict with Angie’s slovenly ways.

One of the disappointing things about this movie is that it consistently hints at how sharp it might have been. The scenes between Kate and Chaffee, especially, comment on the phenomenon of babies as business, two things which were once seen as diametrically and intrinsically opposed to each other. Chaffee refers to surrogacy as “outsourcing,” explaining that it’s essentially no different than hiring a nanny once the baby is born. This first scene between the two not only highlights the way that babies have become an industry, but also touches on the real life moral/ethical conundrum of women from prosperous nations using surrogates from developing nations because it’s cheaper. But the film only touches on these elements briefly, and then moves on to other things and becomes softer and fluffier and move Lifetimey with every twist of the plot.

Part of the problem with Baby Mama is that it’s a lot heavier on plot than it has to be. A large section of the story is concerned with the question of whether or not Angie actually is pregnant, and this part of the plot combined with Kate’s budding relationship with Rob (Greg Kinnear) leads to an ending that is absolutely predictable and a little unsatisfying. That the film doesn’t really need these elements is demonstrated by how well it works when it focuses on the relationship between the two women as they negotiate their differences and their situation. In their prenatal class they’re mistaken for “wesbian wovers” by the lisping instructor, whose suggestion that Kate help Angie prepare for giving birth by massaging her with olive oil is met with Angie’s idea to just “spray some Pam” on herself before the baby comes out.

Performance-wise, the actors in this film are all likeable enough that it makes you wish they were in a better movie. Poehler is appropriately wacky as Angie while also providing her with some much needed humanity so that she’s more than just a sketch character, although it must be admitted that she’s a little too old for this particular role. Steve Martin, in a small role as Kate’s boss, is wonderfully deadpan and Sheppard matches Poehler wacky for wacky as her dimwitted ex. But, ultimately, this is Fey’s movie and as a performer she really delivers. There aren’t a lot of women playing leading roles in movies who are as relatable as Fey, and that’s what really holds this particular film together.

There are a lot of laughs in this movie, but not enough that they distract you from the inherent problems with the way that the story is put together. Fey and Poehler are enjoyable as the two leads and it’s too bad they didn’t save themselves for a film more worthy of the effort.

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