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July 24, 2014

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Baby Mama
(Reviewed May 5, 2008)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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You can see the ending of Michael McCullers’s Baby Mama coming a long way off. I won’t give it away here, but it wouldn’t really matter if I did. You should be able to predict it for yourself well before the movie’s half-way point. This is not in itself a bad thing, necessarily. The endings of romantic comedies — which in some ways this picture aspires to be — are at least equally predictable and no one minds that. It’s actually part of their charm, we feel pleasure both in the happy ending and in being able to anticipate it through the vicissitudes that the lovers have to suffer before it. But Baby Mama is not, quite, a romantic comedy, even though it is comic and there is a romance of the usual type in it. This is really the problem with the film. The romance is a mere plot device in what aspires to be a hybrid of your typical Hollywood comedy of manners and that very rare thing in American art — or any other art these days — a class satire.

Tina Fey, the red hot writer-actress-producer from "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock," plays high-flying career girl, Kate Holbrook, newly made vice president of a chain of Whole Foods-like supermarkets called Round Earth Organic Market, headquartered in Philadelphia. "Some women get pregnant; I got promotions," she tells us in voiceover. Then, suddenly, at age 37 and with no male companion either married or unmarried to her, she decides she wants to have a baby. "Katie’s coming out of the mommy closet," says her sister Caroline (Maura Tierney), a mother of two. The metaphor would seem to suggest that maternal longings are nowadays to be regarded as a shameful secret, at least in certain feminist circles. I have some doubts about this myself, but we can overlook them for the sake of the comedic potentiality of such a piquant reversal of the old social expectations that today’s women (at least some of them) may be faced with.

Naturally, Kate tries artificial insemination, but she is informed that she is the unhappy possessor of a T-shaped uterus and that her chances of conceiving are approximately a million to one. So she decides to go with option number two: surrogacy through an agency run by the preternaturally fertile Sigourney Weaver, who is trying hard to be funny but not succeeding. Steve Martin as pony-tailed Barry, Round Earth’s New Agey c.e.o. is similarly overdone, by the way. Through the agency, Kate finds Angie (fellow SNL alumna, Amy Poehler), a young woman from dreary-looking Dreery, Pennsylvania, who might once have been called "white trash" but whose class origins here are suggested by the squalor of the apartment she shares with the unsavory Carl (Dax Shepard) and the fact that Carl, meant to be seen, I guess, as a kind of Shakespearean "clown" or rustic grotesque who sees her surrogacy as an opportunity for scamming the well-to-do lady who wants to rent his girlfriend’s womb.

But Angie and Carl split up, also predictably, and Angie comes to live in Kate’s upscale apartment where, you won’t be surprised to learn, Odd Couple-style hi-jinks ensue. To some extent, the sting of the film’s satire is drawn and its tendency to turn up its delicate nose at the dirt and ill-doings of the lower orders is mitigated by making blonde Angie into more than just a ditz but a genuine and ultimately sympathetic character. Early on, she is even licensed to give voice to such semi-outrageous opinions as dismissing organic food with the words: "That crap is for rich people who hate themselves." But this is only in her initial, na ve phase, before she becomes not just Kate’s surrogate but the Galatea to her Pygmalion. In the end we ooh and ah not just over the baby or babies who will inevitably be involved but also over Angie’s testimony to Kate to the effect that "I know I was supposed to help you have a baby, but you ended up teaching me how to be a mother."

The smugness and snobbery of this conclusion are deeply unattractive to me, suggesting as they do that being a (proper) mother is more or less synonymous with observing all the upper-middle class fetishes about diet and exercise and natural childbirth and reading the multitude of manuals on the subject rather than being, as it often is in real life, a much more natural part of life for women of Angie’s social class than it is of Kate’s. It is some tribute to Mr McCullers and Miss Fey that this doesn’t destroy either the comedy or the romance, which comes in the form of Greg Kinnear’s burnt out lawyer — a man who seems to be making a remarkably good living selling smoothies in a depressed neighborhood of Philadelphia — but it does leave a taste in the mouth as bad as that of the kelp, the rejection of which at a pretentious organic restaurant is meant to serve as an advertisement of our heroes’ status, after all, as regular folks. It didn’t persuade me, anyway.




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