War has been said to be 99% tedium interspersed with 1% pure terror. And so it is with pregnancy, childbirth and baby rearing, only thankfully (else who would do it?), in these pursuits there are also intervals of intense joy. Perhaps appropriately then, something akin to this ratio of tedium to pain and pleasure obtains in the new romantic comedy What to Expect When You’re Expecting.
With a title based on the famously alarmist, best-selling series of pregnancy advice books, one might expect this film to be a cautionary tale of the innumerable ways the process of pregnancy can go wrong, but not to worry. This is a Hollywood product; like a anesthesiologist with an epidural syringe, it does its best to deliver easy laughs and a feel-good ending.
Following the stories of five interrelated couples, the plot is as crammed as a uterus in the ninth month (yes, the pregnancy metaphors must continue). Little wonder few of them make emotional or comic impact, or that several wear out their welcome. Although she’s as impressively long-stemmed and perky-bodied as humanly possible, the appeal of Cameron Diaz has always been inexplicable, and here again she left me wondering.
Her acting is so wooden and shallow that it causes some sort of furrow in the universe whenever she tries to emote. She simply doesn’t have the enzymes necessary. She and the busily grinning but charmless Matthew Morrison compose the slickest, dullest couple of the film, and they are not without competition.
Diaz would have to fight for the title of the film’s Worst Actor with Rodrigo Santoro, the poster-handsome Brazilian actor who plays the music producer husband of Holly (Jennifer Lopez) with never a moment of credibility or intelligence. One feels sorry for the quite decent Lopez, performing opposite him. In the scenes when he joins the Dude Group’s stroller-pushing and Snugli-wearing promenades, he gives the real impression of a droid clattering along amongst humans. Despite all, however, and mostly due to Lopez’s tender performance, the scene of the adoption of the child in Ethiopia is truly touching.
I’ll confess here that this is but one of the scenes during which I found myself sniffling or outright weeping. For parents, this movie is an effective trip back in time to that vulnerable, raw period of pregnancy and new parenthood, with its shocking exhaustion, struggle and ecstasy. At these moments the film does something few do, which is speak to the heart of the concept of family, how families are formed and what keeps them together.
This is in spite of the plethora of clunkers, including the attractive enough young couple (Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford) with the far-too-cute and trendy plot gimmick of dueling food trucks and a forced miscarriage storyline. Chris Rock is Vic, the leader of the Dude Group, which mostly gives him the chance to spout Chris Rockish jokes about fatherhood and post-childbirth vaginas. I love Rock’s comedy routines, but they work better in solo than in the context of this movie.
But it’s the duo of Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone (Bridesmaids) as Wendy and Gary—the only relatable couple in the film—that forms the heart, such as it is, of the movie. What laughs there are come from these two and the characters around them: Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids) as the hilariously outspoken clerk in Wendy’s baby store and Dennis Quaid as Ramsey, Gary’s studly, inappropriately competitive and undermining father, and Brooklyn Decker as Skyler, Ramsey’s inappropriately young and sexpot wife who becomes accidentally pregnant with twins at the same time that Wendy finally manages to become pregnant after years of fertility treatments. The development of Skyler’s character is one of the nicer points of this movie.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting isn’t perfect, and it’s not exactly a laugh a minute. But neither is parenthood. If they go in with low expectations, many parents will find it well worth seeing, if only as an amusing and touching blast back to those terrifying, exhilarating, early baby days.