by David Cornelius
With its paper-thin characters, cheesy sitcom plotting, and lamebrained punchlines, “Baby Mama” seems like the movie actors as smart as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler would want to ridicule. Yet here they are, both starring in a comedy that’s as forgettable as it is idiotic. Were both sold on the idea that a stale, safe, middle-of-the-road comedy was exactly what they needed to boost their careers? Were they tired of performing intelligent material, the urge to dumb it down becoming irresistible? You can’t help but wonder: just what were they thinking?Here is a movie that manages to end with both a courtroom scene and a baby-birthing scene - proof that writer/director Michael McCullers never met a cliché he didn’t like. McCullers began as a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” then branched out to co-script “Thunderbirds,” “Undercover Brother,” and “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” three movies not fondly remembered for their screenplays. Now he makes his directing debut, and his visual approach is lifeless and flat. The pacing is off in every scene (lots of awkward pauses for laughs that never arrive), and set-ups feel inspired by one-dimensional TV comedies.
"When good comics go bad."
But while his direction leaves the film tedious and uneven, it’s the script that ultimately kills the film. The set-up: Super-busy businesswoman Kate Holbrook (Fey) yearns for a baby but can’t conceive. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Poehler), a white trash numbskull hired to be the surrogate mother. Can the uptight, organized vice-president of a health food chain handle nine months with the foul-mouthed moron who loves to chug Dr. Pepper?
That alone is enough to be a horrible concept - not that surrogate parenting or mismatched relationships can’t lead to comedy, but in this film, McCullers leaves the Odd Couple-esque humor to lazily take every hackneyed route imaginable. But wait, there’s more! We also get a cheap Kate-at-work subplot that follows her attempts to plan a new store in downtown Philadelphia, a storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere interesting, but, hey, it sure kills the time. A mildly useful subplot features Greg Kinnear as Rob, the owner of a smoothie restaurant who falls for Kate. Fey and Kinnnear have a nice chemistry going; too bad their characters aren’t worth watching.
There’s a running plot point about how Kate is afraid to tell Rob about Angie. Why? The script tosses us some nonsense about how Kate is afraid Rob might not understand, although we never buy it beyond crummy story necessity - these don’t feel like the actions these characters would really do, but it presents easy conflict, so in it goes. The whole thing leads up to the scene where Rob shows up unannounced at a baby shower. How does the screenplay follow up on such a turn of events? It throws in a second, more important revelation and completely forgets the whole Rob angle. If it’s not important enough for a complete follow-through, why did we get it in the first place?
Of course, that other revelation is the result of another set of sloppy, unnecessary twists ineptly dropped into the story simply because McCullers thought the movie needed even more conflict. In order to have the third-act moment where Kate and Angie go their separate ways, only to be seen walking solemnly down city streets while some generic moody song plays on the soundtrack, which of course will be followed by their eventual reunion (this movie’s equivalent of a clichéd romantic comedy’s breakup-then-makeup finale), there must first be some sort of reason, which McCullers concocts out of that other trite plot point: the Dirty Little Secret, discovered by the audience early but by the lead character late. Fey and Poehler, you’re better than this material, and you know it.
The movie never figures out what kind of comedy it wants to be. Sure, it thinks it’s your standard sitcom (did I mention the awful double whammy of courtroom and birth scenes?), and most of the time it plays out as such. But then there are scenes where it openly wants to parody itself; the insemination sequence is played out in slo-mo with an 80s slow song noodling away on the side. Then there are characters like those played by Steve Martin (he’s a flaky new age nut) and Siobhan Fallon Hogan (she’s a hippie-dippy Lamaze teacher with a “funny” Elmer Fudd voice), both airlifted in from some other, more deliberately “wacky” movie, totally out of place here. And at times, the movie wants to be raunchy, with Angie peeing in the bathroom sink and, later, jokes about Kate having to oil up Angie’s “taint”; then again, it also wants to be sweet, with Kate and Angie bettering each other through friendship.
But if it knew what kind of movie it was, it would also know what kind of characters it had. Which it doesn’t. Watch how McCullers writes for Angie. At times, she’s an ignorant yokel too stupid to know what water tastes like, or how to open a car door, or how human biology works. Other times, she’s a whip-smart wiseacre ready with a quip. Angie gets to say punchlines no human that stupid could ever conceive, but that would take away from McCullers’ one-liner style.If not for the cast itself (which also includes Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor, and Romany Malco as a doorman so omnipresent he could only exist in a movie this clichéd), “Baby Mama” would be an unbearable disaster. The stars are able to slip just enough charm through the cracks that the film manages to become merely terrible. But only barely. What were they thinking?
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originally posted: 05/12/08 09:57:26