[Christianity Today Online, April 25, 2008)
Summary: In this comedy a single thirty-something organic foods executive can’t sustain a pregnancy, so she hires a ditsy surrogate to carry her baby to term.
Rated PG -13
Released: April 25, 2008 by Broadway Video
Directed by: Michael McCullers
Runtime: 96 min.
Cast: Tina Fey (Kate), Amy Poehler (Angie), Greg Kinnear (Rob), Dax Shepard (Carl), Romany Malco (Oscar)
By Frederica Mathewes-Green
When Chinese food was first becoming popular in the US, some decades ago, a saying quickly became a cliché: it tastes great, but an hour later you’re hungry all over again.
Some comedies are like that. As long as you’re in the theater, you could be laughing more or less continuously. On the way home, though, the lines and images that evoked such mirth have somehow evaporated. You sift your mind for memorable moments, but apparently they weren’t all that memorable. Punchlines seem less punchy. Even the performer’s faces blur in retrospect.
That’s the case with “Baby Mama.” I’ve sat through enough laugh-less comedies to be grateful when a movie entertains me, even temporarily—but no one’s going to call this film a classic.
The storyline is unimaginative: Kate, a top exec at the “Round Earth” organic grocery chain decides that, at 37, mommy-hood is now or never. But artificial insemination isn’t working, and when she applies to adopt a child she is turned down. Kate is about to give up hope when runs across a completely unexpected option: hire another woman to carry her petri-dish baby. She visits the Chaffee Bicknell surrogacy agency and gets a persuasive sales pitch from Chaffee herself (Sigourney Weaver): “We don’t do our own taxes any more, we don’t program our own computers; we outsource.”
So Kate meets, and then signs a contract with, an uneducated blonde named Angie, and offers her $100,000 as a nine-month carrying fee. Not long afterwards Angie breaks up with her Neanderthal boyfriend, Carl, and moves into Kate’s apartment. This sets the stage for a female version of “The Odd Couple.” Though the humor often dwells on pregnancy, babies, and female body functions (a prospect likely to keep male viewers out of the theater), the mainspring of the film is the profound differences in personality between Kate and Angie.
It’s where the movie falters, I think, because those differences are so stereotyped. Kate is uptight, while Angie fast and loose; Kate’s responsible, while Angie is impulsive and reckless; Kate is smart, and—not to put too fine a point on it—Angie’s stupid. Kate points out that it’s no sign of intelligence when a woman falls asleep with a curling iron in her hair. Angie retorts, “That only happened two times!”
The formula requires that Kate learn some lessons from Angie too, of course, but these are less successful in terms of laughs, or even in terms of logic. It’s really not believable that Kate would allow Angie to dress her up for a night of “clubbing” in an outfit that shoots right past “slinky” and lands at “skanky.” It’s not believable that on their night out Kate keeps tossing back the drinks, as if she had no experience with alcohol. And it doesn’t make sense for Kate to go on after that night accentuating her tidy, businesslike appearance with abundant cleavage.
The film has a good fix on how to present stupid jokes (and stupid jokes can be really, really funny) but it seems less clear on what to do with Kate. Though she lives at a level of income few of us will ever know, the story is framed so that we’ll identify with her, and view Angie and Carl as appallingly crude, superficial, and sneaky. It’s a bit of awkward timing that a movie trading so heavily in ridicule of blue-collar characters would debut so soon after a political dustup over charges of “elitism.” (The story takes place in Pennsylvania, by the way.) It’s also a bit uncomfortable that the only black character in the movie, Oscar (Romany Malco), always appears in a doorman’s uniform, and that his role consists largely of reacting to things the crazy white people do, widening his eyes so you see the whites all around. Since Oscar has the edge on Carl in so many ways—smarter, kinder, handsomer—I had an idea that he might offer Angie a romantic alternative, but this was a plot opportunity missed.
Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are fine in the lead roles, but neither has the weight to really anchor the movie. Peripheral characters are more diverting, especially Steve Martin as Barry, the gray-ponytailed space cadet who is president of “Round Foods,” and Sigourney Weaver as Chaffee Bricknell (when Kate meets her and says that she didn’t realize it was a person’s name rather than a partnership, Chaffee lets out a long, uninflected laugh while gently shaking her curls, then stops abrubtly. It was startling and original, and I wanted more of that kind of thing.) And Siobhan Fallon is delightful as the Teutonic-inflected natural childbirth teacher, who mistakenly affirms Kate and Angie’s presence in the class as “wesbians.”
So “Baby Mama” is a mixed (diaper) bag. On the plus side, there are a couple of plot twists that I didn’t expect; I hardly expected there to be a plot at all. On the negative, there are too many moments of unearned sentimentality, too many montages, too much tinkly music shoving our emotions around. In a late scene, the music swells and the camera dollies in as Angie apologizes for complicating Kate’s life so much, and says, “Thank you, you made me grow up.” That lurch in the audience’s stomach is not morning sickness.
Talk About It:
1. Surrogacy is one of those new medical possibilities that raises moral questions previous generations never considered. What do you think? Is it right for a woman to have her fertilized egg implanted in another woman’s womb, and pay her to go through the pregnancy?
2. Throughout the movie there are situations where it’s accepted that women needn’t be married to raise a child. Is there a moral dimension to the decision to become a single mom, or is it just a matter of choice?
3. What do you think of Angie’s prospects at the end of the movie? Is it a happy ending for her? What do you think Angie’s and Kate’s lives would look like if you came back ten years later?
The storyline assumes that unmarried people will have sex, that they can have babies with or without sex, and that they can get pregnant without having babies (in an early line, Angie exclaims that she is “real good at getting pregnant,” though she has no children). There are crude situations, for example, when Angie can’t get the child-lock off the toilet and climbs into the sink to relieve herself. A raft of obscenities completes the movie’s range.