My wife is currently six months pregnant with our first child, so it should be no surprise that Heidi Murkoff’s best-selling book “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” has been our constant companion for the last several months. The book is a veritable encyclopedia of pregnancy, providing an optimistic sense of caution for mothers- and fathers-to-be. Murkoff and her publishing team seem to have an answer to every question I anxiously seek in the middle of the night and they provide their knowledge with a comforting sense of humor (in one of my favorite passages she mentions how only a pregnant woman can out-flatulate a frat boy).
When it was announced that director Kirk Jones (Nanny McPhee) would be releasing a film based on this resourceful book I was hoping that there would be at least a few tonal similarities. However, it quickly became apparent that the book and the film share little more than a title. While the book describes the expectations of pregnancy with insight and honesty, the film veers more sentimental and is altogether uninterested with the day-to-day confusion of expectant parents. This would be a fine approach, except the film’s use of an ensemble fails to give its individual characters the development that they deserve. The result is that What to Expect When You’re Expecting is only about one fourth successful with some pretty easy solutions to fix its many problems.
The story focuses on five couples that have all come to be pregnant in different ways. The most interesting narrative surrounds children’s storeowner Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), who idealizes pregnancy until she actually experiences it herself. Her husband, Gary (Ben Falcone), is in a constant competition with his father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), who announces that his 25-year old wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), is also expecting. Meanwhile a couple of former high school sweethearts (Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford) finds out that a heat-of-the-moment hook-up has resulted in an unplanned pregnancy.
There is also celebrity fitness trainer Jules (Cameron Diaz) who gets pregnant by her partner on a “Dancing With the Stars” knock-off show (Matthew Morrison) and refuses to let her child carrying interfere with her career. Their wealth is contrasted by economically challenged artists Holly and Alex (Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro) who are preparing to adopt a child from Ethiopia. Feeling unprepared for fatherhood, Alex takes solace in a collective of new dads known as the “dudes group” who convene to do manly things with babies strapped to their chests.
The primary problem with What to Expect When You’re Expecting would have been pretty easy to fix: three out of the five narratives in the ensemble are not interesting. The miniature story arcs range from unnecessary (Lopez and Santoro) to flat out annoying (Diaz and Morrison) and ultimately distract from the real heart of the movie – Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone. The ubiquitous Banks gives one of her career best performances as she perfectly captures the chaos experienced by an expectant mother. Falcone, who broke out in a bit role in last year’s Bridesmaids and should cement many more leading parts after this movie, contrasts Banks perfectly as her supportive, but ultimately clueless husband. Their scenes were riotously funny and sweet with a flawless pay off during the delivery scene.
Kendrick and Crawford are given sarcastic dialogue that tries so hard to be hip, that it comes across with a phoniness that makes “The Gilmore Girls” sound like Chekhov. Diaz and Morrison exist in a narrative designed to appeal to the type of people who take “Dancing With the Stars” seriously and think “The Biggest Loser” is a comedy television show. Lopez and Rodrigo are appropriate only in that they are our gateway to “dudes group” where we get to see comedians like Chris Rock, Rob Huebel, and Thomas Lennon deliver lines that would probably be funny in any movie. Each of these couples, however, is ultimately disposable in the context of the larger film.
If screenwriters Heather Hach and Shauna Cross were to excise Lopez, Diaz, and Kendrick from the narrative, the movie would have been a lot more successful. However, Hollywood’s fixation on ensemble films that are gluttonously filled with stars prevented that from happening.
Bottom Line: What to Expect When You’re Expecting is only about one fourth successful with some pretty easy solutions to fix its many problems.