At last, the backlash. Following a series of unwanted pregnancy comedies (the not-at-all smart Smart People was the latest in the litany), we’re now treated to the inverse: Baby Mama, a comedy about pregnancy desired but denied.
Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) is the successful producer of a TV sketch comedy show called “TGS with Tracy Jordan” who--no, wait, sorry. She’s actually a successful exec at a Philadelphia organic food company, but in all other respects she’s decidedly Liz Lemony: more focused on work than on her love life, constantly troubleshooting for an aloof male boss, and likable in an uptight, mildly dorky way. Kate’s fundamental problem is that she’s 37 and single and she wants a baby in the very worst way. Her efforts to adopt have been met with skepticism, and her attempts at artificial insemination have been thwarted by a uterus shaped like a “T,” which is evidently a crummy alphabetical environ for implantation.
So, in a twist that would have felt more topical several years back, she decides to hire a surrogate to carry her sperm-donor-fertilized eggs. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), a high-school dropout from the sticks with a womb as vacant as her cranium. Kate’s eggs are implanted in Angie (in a slo-mo, soft-focus scene wittily set to “Endless Love”) and, barring the occasional lecture on the nutritive value of Red Bull, everything seems on course--that is, until Angie leaves her oafish common-law husband (Dax Shepard) and asks to move in with Kate.
It’s an Odd Coupling that, while conventional in conception, is exceptionally executed by Fey and Poehler, firmly in their respective comedic comfort zones of wry vulnerability and barely restrained derangement. Though the script, by “SNL” alum and Austin Powers series co-writer Michael McCullers (who also directed), has its weak points--a lisping labor coach (Siobhan Fallon) and limp conclusion prominent among them--it’s generally quite funny, with amusing drive-bys of upscale do-gooders (“Recently we took in some Hurricane Katrina dogs”), precious children’s names (“We have a play date with Wingspan and Banjo”), and what it feels like to undergo labor (a tad graphic for inclusion here). Baby Mama had the look to me of one of those films with exactly four good jokes, all of which are featured in the trailer. It’s not.
The movie has a deep bench of supporting talent. Greg Kinnear makes an appearance as the likable love interest. Sigourney Weaver has a good time as the implausibly fertile head of the surrogate agency. And Steve Martin has his moments as Kate’s new-age billionaire boss, though the joke is carried on too long. And Romany Malco (of “Weeds” and The 40 Year Old Virgin) lifts the role of street-smart doorman as far as he can above racial caricature.
Though Baby Mama is being billed as a gal-friendly counterpart to the male-centric lens of the Apatow Industry, it doesn’t try as hard or scratch as deep as the latter’s better efforts, in ways both good and bad. Though its underlying themes--female singlehood, motherhood, sisterhood--have resonance, they remain distinctly low key: Its situations are fodder for situational comedy, not sociological exploration. Romantic entanglements come and go and come back again, but no one seems much wounded by them; single parenthood lurks, but only as a happy outcome, not a difficult beginning. And, though the premise for the film is the anxiety of a woman approaching 40, it’s an anxiety that remains largely unpacked. (Compare, for instance, Kate and Angie’s goofy girls’-night-out clubbing experience with the comparable sequence in Knocked Up.)
At the same time, perhaps because Baby Mama never takes itself too seriously, it rarely feels as desperate for a laugh as the Apatow oeuvre, whose scatological excesses almost seem a conscious counterweight to its emotional excavations. (Loneliness? Gay Joke. Growing old? Fart Joke.) Does this make Baby Mama a relatively safe, conventional Hollywood comedy? It does indeed. But it’s an enjoyable one, and on some sunny spring days, that is enough.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.