It’s hard to not be disappointed by Baby Mama.
The film isn’t bad, it’s just pedestrian, and with the talent on
display that might be the last thing you’d expect. Certainly it’s the
last thing you’d want.
Tina Fey doesn’t get a writing credit on Baby Mama,
but it’s hard to imagine her not taking a swipe at some of the script;
a few of the gags feel vintage Fey. But not enough. Maybe it would have
helped if Fey had sat down and done enough work to get a full credit on
the thing, pumping up the jokes and making the whole thing feel less
sitcom. Ironically her sitcom, 30 Rock, feels less sitcom than this movie.
The basic premise has Fey as a driven, successful 37 year old executive
who really wants a baby but can’t find anyone to knock her up. She ends
up going the surrogate mother path, and the surrogate she gets is a
white trash slob played by Amy Poehler. When the white trash surrogate
breaks up with her common law husband, she moves in with Fey, much
moderate hilarity and learning ensues. Complications pop up along the
way to make the film something more than The Odd Couple With a Fetus, but it’s essentially what you expect.
First time director Michael McCullers has an eye tailor-made for
television; he also wrote the film, which is at least better than most
of the other things on his IMDB filmography (like Thunderbirds or Undercover Brother or the Austin Powers movies).
McCullers has learned one lesson from the world of Apatow (of which
he’s never been a part) – fill your movie with good side characters
played by naturally funny people. There is a veritable who’s who of SNL and
alternative comedy people here in tiny roles, and the bigger
co-starring parts get filled with terrific comedic actors. Dax Shepard
is Poehler’s common law husband, Romany Malco is Fey’s very involved
doorman (his character skirts the edge of Sambo-ism, but it mostly
works) and Steve Martin is Fey’s uber-New Age clown of a boss.
Fey and Poehler get all the best gags, but Martin comes out very well,
even if his character’s joke never really gets a punchline. The miracle
worker, though, is Greg Kinnear. Given almost nothing to work with,
Kinnear makes all of his straight guy lines pop and sing. Kinnear
continues to prove himself a secret weapon of incredible magnitude;
he’s never the reason you go see a movie, but he’s very often your
favorite thing about it once you’ve seen it.
I laughed during Baby Mama, but I
mostly chuckled. Occasionally I grinned quietly. This is just not
enough to justify a night out at the movies; maybe I’m missing some
female component of the story since I’ll never get pregnant (but then
again, neither will McCullers, so maybe there’s nothing to miss here),
but the movie never resonated at a deeper level than a couple of jokes
that worked. Every problem and obstacle feels obvious and without
meaning, and most seem to get cleared up very quickly (Fey breaks up
with Kinnear, who is the Perfect Man, for about two minutes during the
third act because the romantic comedy handbook calls for just such a
Weirdly, the most interesting thing about Baby Mama might be the product placement, almost all of it negative. Poehler’s character is roundly chastised for drinking Dr. Pepper and eating Tasty Kakes. Jamba Juice is name dropped again and again as the Wal-Mart of smoothies, once being called ‘corporate juice pimps.’ This is the next generation of product placement; we saw it last summer in Transformers, when the Air Force One stewardess was disgusting by the President’s Ring Dings. Going after a younger, hipper crowd, the corporate types are trying self-deprecation – sure, Dr. Pepper is said to be bad for you, but it gets like twelve mentions during the film.
Tina Fey should be giving us better movies. While head and shoulders above the usual SNL alumni crap, Fey towers above the usual SNL alums. 30 Rock is
a classic sitcom that ranks alongside the shows that are so good they
usually get canceled within two seasons, and her feature film star
debut should have been stronger. While Baby Mama isn’t an embarrassment, it’s impossible to recommend as anything but a future rental.