Friends With Kids is the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in quite some time. Not that it has much competition, given the general failings of the genre, but what writer/director Jennifer Westfeldt (who also stars) achieves with a decidedly archetypical story is hugely impressive. Westfeldt’s authorial voice is strong and unique, her worldview insightful and thought provoking, and the film’s unerring sense of purpose and clarity of execution is refreshing. This is one of the most pleasant cinematic surprises of 2012.
Westfeldt and Adam Scott star as best friends Julie and Jason. They love each other deeply, but not romantically, and have never considered a closer relationship. It’s a dynamic we’ve seen in countless comedies over the past few years, but what sets Friends With Kids apart right off the bat is the authenticity with which the friendship is portrayed. Through Westfeldt’s distinctive, believable writing and a pair of tremendous performances by her and Scott, it takes little time for the viewer to understand what Jason and Julie mean to each other. There is an organic, vulnerable realism to their interactions, and through the simplest of exchanges, we see how difficult it would be for two people who know each other so well to open themselves up to the complexities of actual romance.
One of the things Julie and Jason share is their desire to have children. Yet observing their close circle of friends – each of whom has had their marriages severely weakened, if not outright destroyed, by the stresses of starting a family – Julie and Jason are confused by the established social order. Thus, Jason proposes a radical idea: He and Julie should have a child together, but never get married or become romantically attached. They will split custody 50/50, and have relationships with other partners once they no longer have to worry about the pressures of having a kid. That way, they can each have the child they want and commit themselves fully to their offspring, without worrying about putting deep romantic trust in a partner.
What’s startling about the premise is how much sense it immediately makes. Jason’s idea is predicated on very honest observations about how much people hurt themselves trying to master romance and children at the same time, and once the film raises the issue, it’s hard to stop thinking about it all in real-world terms.
It works because Westfeldt doesn’t treat the premise as a high-concept gimmick; the film is a comedy, and there are many laughs to be had, but never at the expense of the central themes. Jason and Julie’s decision is analyzed from every perspective, and the characters’ understanding of this core dilemma evolves in organic, insightful ways. There are major benefits and extreme difficulties to what Jason and Julie have chosen, and Westfeldt gives the good and bad equal credence. In the film’s most rousing scene, Jon Hamm’s character berates Jason and Julia for what they have done, and everything he says makes perfect sense. Then Jason retorts, and every point he makes is equally valid. The lack of easy answers makes for a moment as stirring as it is thought provoking.
True thematic and character development allows Westfeldt to get away with clichés I would otherwise frown upon, and it helps that she’s assembled an absolutely fantastic cast. I’ve already mentioned how good she and Scott are, together and apart, but it’s worth mentioning once more: these are great performances, complex pieces of acting rarely seen in romantic comedies. Scott, in particular, proves he’s always had what it takes to be the leading man, and I hope he gets many more roles this substantial in the future. Jason and Julia’s friends are played by an insanely talented comedic ensemble, including Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Chris O’Dowd. Each character is reasonably well-defined by Westfeldt’s writing, but filling each part with top-notch talent goes a long way towards making every inch of the film’s universe three-dimensional.
Friends With Kids is undoubtedly a winner, and Lionsgate has blessed the film with an equally solid Blu-Ray release. The 1080p hi-definition transfer is absolutely gorgeous, befitting Westfeldt’s simple yet alluring cinematography. The image is rich with a wide, vibrant range of colors, and awash with lifelike detail in every frame. Contrast is exquisite, with deep blacks that allow that detail to shine through even in darkly lit sequences. The only noticeable flaw is a minor amount of digital noise on solid background colors, but assuming the film was shot digitally, this is unavoidable, and no fault of the transfer. Friends With Kids will probably never be used as demo material, but that doesn’t stop it from showing off what Blu-Ray can achieve for any type of film.
The audio is less impressive, by virtue of the film’s understandably limited soundscape. This is a dialogue driven comedy, and as such, the DTS-HD 5.1 track simply isn’t designed to shake your home theater’s foundations. That being said, the track goes above and beyond the call of duty, presenting the dialogue with a crisp, realistic vivacity only HD audio can provide. LFE only kicks in when incidental music is played, but it’s used extremely effectively, and during the more chaotic sequences, the surround channels are put to good use to envelop the listener. Again, Friends With Kids doesn’t reimagine the boundaries of Blu-Ray, but I simply can’t fathom the film looking or sounding any better than it does here.
The extras are probably the least impressive component of this release, but that speaks more to the strength of the film and A/V transfer than any particular failing of the bonuses. Let’s take a look:
- Audio Commentary with Jennifer Westfeldt, Jon Hamm, and William Rexler (DP)
- Making Friends With Kids
- Fun with Actors and Kids (Ad-libs and Bloopers)
- MJ Rocks at Video Games with Optional Commentary
- Scene 42: Anatomy of a Gag with Optional Commentary
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary
The highlight here is definitely the feature audio commentary, which hits just about every check-mark a commentary can fulfill. Given the many hats she wore in making the movie, Westfeldt provides copious amounts of insight on every aspect of the production, and DP Rexer has plenty to offer as well. Since Hamm is Westfeldt’s husband, their endearing rapport makes for a decidedly engaging listen.
The other material is much less compelling, but welcome nevertheless. The “Making-of” piece is a bit fluffy, but allows you to hear from voices not featured on the commentary; the bloopers, while certainly not revelatory, are an entertaining distraction, especially given the likability of the cast; and the “Anatomy of a Gag” and “Deleted Scenes” features give very solid insight into how the film was assembled. Not a groundbreaking collection of extras by any means, but given how sparse most Blu-Ray releases are these days, Lionsgate should be commended for going the extra mile and producing truly quality content.
There’s no downside to purchasing Friends With Kids on Blu-Ray. This is an excellent release, and more importantly, the film itself is an unexpected gem. Jennifer Westfeldt has emerged as a unique and talented voice worth listening to, and as such, Friends With Kids stands far, far apart from the generic rom-com pack. This is the genre at its very best, an authentic human tale that asks big questions and follows up every step of the way. It comes highly recommended.