March 18, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
The set-up of “Friends With Kids” seems very contemporary. Jason and Julie (Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt) are besties who decide to have a baby yet remain just friends. They live in the same building, so they easily share baby-care while each continues to search elsewhere for a soul mate. Their open talk to each other about their sex lives is also something you don’t usually hear in romantic comedies.
But the movie plays on an idea that goes back many decades. As Jeannette Catsoulis in the Times review put it, the “jokes about vaginal elasticity (in this case lack thereof) and other formerly unmentionable female concerns” seem like an attempt “ to veil the retrograde themes lurking behind them.” Catsoulis doesn’t specify those retrograde themes, but the principle one is this: the assumption that marriage and children spell the death of romance and sexuality.
In the early TV family sitcoms of the fifties and sixties, this assumption was a taken-for-granted part of the landscape. It wasn’t just that prudish standards required separate beds for Ozzie and Harriet, Rob and Laura Petrie, Lucy and Ricky, and the other couples. Their kisses and hugs were friendly, never passionate. There was never a hint that sex might exist between them. Even by the seventies, when Archie and Edith could share a double bed, we could be pretty sure they wouldn’t be doing much there except sleeping. More recent sitcom couples have been allowed to acknowledge sexuality, maybe because these are characters whose erotic encounters most viewers might prefer not to think about – Dan and Roseanne, Homer and Marge, Peter and Lois.
In “Friends With Kids,” one of the two married couples (Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd) comes straight from this old sitcom stockroom. They are relatively happy and funny, but sex is a rarity. Once a month, O’Dowd tells Scott.
The other couple (Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig) are married but sexy (they first appear on screen in a restaurant, returning to the table after a quickie in the bathroom).
Over the course of the film, they suffer the same loss of sexuality, but their very non-sitcom marriage cannot survive it (“Once, she gave me a blow job on the Taconic,” Hamm shouts angrily in an uncomfortable dinner-table scene, “Now look at us!”)
It may be particularly American, this idea that parenthood makes sexuality impossible or irrelevant, and it may have something to do with our view of children and childhood. In France, says Elaine Sciolino in a review of Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman, mothers “refuse to make child-rearing an all-consuming vocation. Rearranging your schedule to fit the baby’s is a no-no. Getting back your sexy, pre-pregnancy self is a priority.”
In the US, children and childhood have a much more important and even enviable position. Hence, in American movies, as I noted in a post on “The Descendants” (here), adults must often turn to children to tell them what to do. In comedies, it’s usually clear from the start that the male and female protagonists are made for each other – clear to everyone except the protagonists themselves. The only question is how they will come to this realization and overcome the barriers to their getting together. In American movies like “The Parent Trap” and “Sleepless in Seattle” and probably others I cannot think of right now, the one who brings about this happy ending is a kid. “Friends With Kids” takes this theme to a new level – the kid is two years old and capable only of two-word utterances (“Daddy stay”). But it’s enough to prod Scott to deliver the speech we’ve been waiting for since the film began.
That said, I thought the film was funnier and more enjoyable than did the reviewers (WaPo, NYT, even Variety). As usual, the trailer provides a better plot summary. It has gotten only narrow indie-style distribution, but on a per-screen basis, it’s doing better than Eddie Murphy.