Baby Mama (Universal) is the most disappointing movie of the year so far—which, granted, isn’t saying a lot in mid-April. It’s not as if I walked into the screening room all jazzed about the potential brilliance of Jumper or Street Kings or Drillbit Taylor. But a Tina Fey/Amy Poehler comedy about surrogate pregnancy, coming at a moment when Fey’s career is on a stratospheric climb and popular culture is obsessed with the female reproductive system? Surely this movie was going to be funny—or at least relevant, edgy, and politically provocative. And given the raising of the raunchiness bar in recent comedies, Baby Mama seemed likely to offer a rollicking feminist response to the “Can you top this?” school of guy humor.
Instead, Baby Mama is a politely bland retread of women’s-movie clichés a generation old: the driven businesswoman who puts off motherhood till the last minute, then pursues it with type-A zeal; the guy who flees a first date when babies are mentioned; the down-to-earth potential boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) who, by his very existence, reminds the overly ambitious heroine of what really matters in life. Look, I have fond enough memories of Diane Keaton and Sam Shepard in Baby Boom, but that was more than 20 years ago. Have our ideas about working, parenting, and the formation of alternative families really changed so little since 1987?
Part of the problem may be that Baby Mama isn’t really a Tina Fey movie. It’s a Michael McCullers movie, written and directed by the former Saturday Night Live writer who also scripted the Austin Powers sequels. McCullers’ script isn’t a total dud, but it lacks Fey’s sharp social insights, and his direction dips into rom-com hackdom (complete with a montage, three-quarters of the way through, in which the main characters mope around missing each other to the strains of a pop ballad).
Kate Holbrook (Fey) is the single, 37-year-old VP of a Whole Foods-like chain of organic grocery stores led by a New Age branding guru (a very funny Steve Martin). Told by a doctor who “doesn’t like [her] uterus” (John Hodgman) that she has a one-in-a-million chance of conceiving, Kate takes herself to a high-end surrogacy clinic run by Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver), a hyperfertile 50-something who’s smugly pregnant with twins. In what seems an uncharacteristically spontaneous move for such a choosy shopper, Kate accepts the first candidate who comes her way, Angie Ostrowski (Poehler), a blue-collar gum-snapper with a bottom-feeding common-law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard in a variant on the slack-jawed yokel he played in Idiocracy).
After Angie and Carl have a fight, Angie packs up and moves into Kate’s poshly appointed apartment, where tiresome high jinks ensue. Angie may or may not be faking the pregnancy. If she is knocked up, the baby may not be Kate’s—and if it isn’t, she may not be willing to hand it over after the delivery. All this could have been the springboard to investigating (or wickedly satirizing) some of the issues surrounding surrogacy, which, as this excellent Newsweek piece reported, can be a minefield for class, race, and gender tensions. But the conflict between Kate and Angie rarely rises above Odd Couple level: Organic pea soup or Tastykakes? Touchy-feely birthing videos or American Idol karaoke?
Fey and Poehler make ideal comic foils on SNL: the dry, brainy, self-contained brunette and the saucer-eyed, floppy-limbed, live-wire blonde. But they can’t escape the trap set by these narrowly imagined characters. Poehler’s Angie in particular seems only half thought-out—a free-floating stereotype unanchored to reality. What, if anything, did she and Carl do for a living before the surrogacy job came along? How does she feel about the baby that’s (maybe) growing in her belly? When Kate calls her “ignorant white trash” in a key scene, why does she respond with “I deserved that”? And when the two women finally do become friends, is there any reason outside the exigencies of the script?
Baby Mama is best when it playfully spoofs yuppie culture (I liked the moment at a playground when “Remy and Cheyenne” are summoned for their play date with “Wingspan and Banjo”). Barry, Steve Martin’s passive-aggressive hippie CEO, gets the funniest lines by far (“I found this seashell while running barefoot through the Toronto airport”). Is it possible he wrote his own dialogue? The handsome and gifted Romany Malco, whose agent should be fired for not getting him out of these flunky roles, lurks around the edges of the movie as Fey’s observant doorman.
Baby Mama’s overdetermined happy ending—I won’t give it away, but you’ll know in advance anyway, thanks to half a dozen cues—does the movie’s theme a disservice by copping out on the whole notion of alternative family (a condescending term in itself, but that’s another matter). As in Knocked Up, what at first appears to be at least a mildly subversive vision of sexual politics soon reverts to an endorsement of heterosexual and biological norms. For all the methods we’ve invented of making babies—in test-tubes, with turkey basters, in the wombs of other women or even transmen—Hollywood still prefers its leading ladies to put a rock on their finger and push one out the old-fashioned way.