Michael McCullers’ ‘Baby Mama’ (2008)

22Jan09

After some spot-on impressions of political personalities and heavily pregnant rapping this past year, I would bet that not many people doubt Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s comedic talents. In 2008 Poehler became the first SNL cast member to earn an Emmy nomination, and Fey is running out of room on her mantle for all the awards she has won for 30 Rock, her critical darling of a sitcom. 'Baby Mama' posterAnd yet somehow, even with that powerhouse duo as his leads, writer-director Michael McCullers manages to make only a mediocre comedy.

Kate Holbrook, a single, successful executive of a natural foods company, wants to have a baby. After trying artificial insemination she learns that she has a very small chance at conceiving, so Kate decides to try a surrogate pregnancy instead. When Kate’s surrogate Angie, a South Philly working girl, breaks up with her boyfriend, she moves in with Kate and the two women must learn to coexist despite their clashing personalities. Predictably, Kate and Angie become friends, and Angie starts to feel guilty that she lied to Kate about being pregnant. The artificial insemination didn’t take, but Angie soon realizes that she really is pregnant by her ex-boyfriend. The truth comes out eventually, but Kate doesn’t mind so much because in the meantime she has hooked up with a local business owner named Rob and has gotten pregnant the old-fashioned way.

Obviously McCullers, who used to write for SNL, isn’t culling any new territory in devising the storyline — Baby Mama is pretty much The Odd Couple set to the ticking of a biological clock. But even great comedies don’t tend to rely on their overly original plots to entertain. Baby Mama fails because the jokes aren’t very good. McCullers’ script doesn’t try for a lot of big jokes, and a lot of the small ones fall flat because they just aren’t that funny. The segment of the film that produced the most consecutive laughs for me was the scene in which Kate tries to get Angie to take her prenatal vitamin, but most of that dialogue felt improvised rather than scripted. Indeed, much of the laugh-out-loud material seems to be the result of improvisation.

I appreciate that McCullers has made a film with strong female leads, but Thelma & Louise this is not. Baby Mama is a movie about women having babies — McCullers isn’t exactly challenging gender roles here. Yes, Kate starts the film trying to be a single mother through surrogacy, but ultimately both she and Angie have babies the way people are supposed to, through sex in a heterosexual relationship. The main characters’ outcomes suggest that the film shares Rob’s dismissive attitude toward surrogacy and alternative methods of reproduction in general.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler do the best they can with the material, and the potential obvious in their chemistry makes the pedestrian script all the more frustrating. As the love interests, Greg Kinnear is likable but forgettable as Rob, but Dax Shepard improvises several good lines as Angie’s blue-collar boyfriend Carl. Romany Malco gets a few laughs playing Kate’s very hands-on doorman, and I enjoyed seeing Malco in a much, uh, gentler comedy than his other endeavors, such as Weeds and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I like Malco, but I get a little weary of so many iterations of “bitch,” “pussy,” and “nigga.” Sigourney Weaver is wasted in an unneeded, unfunny role as head of the surrogacy agency, and Steve Martin delivers an uncomfortably odd performance as Kate’s hippie boss Barry. Remember when Steve Martin used to be really funny? Yeah, I’m having trouble with that one too.

Baby Mama is a pleasant enough movie, and I suppose it’s worth a viewing for Fey and Poehler fans. But if I want to watch a movie full of SNL folks that’s not an SNL movie, I’m going to reach for Mean Girls instead. In the future, Tina should stick to her own material.

Tina Fey & Amy Poehler in 'Baby Mama'
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