Learning on the Job About Birthing Babies
In the new comedy “Baby Mama” Tina Fey plays a 37-year-old single career woman who, desperate for a baby, hires a womb of her own in the dizzy, slap-happy form of Amy Poehler. The film never comes fully to term, as it were: the visual style is sitcom functional, and even the zippiest jokes fall flat because of poor timing. But, much like the prickly, talented Ms. Fey, it pulls you in with a provocative and, at least in current American movies, unusual mix of female intelligence, awkwardness and chilled-to-the-bone mean.
Ms. Fey is of course best known for working in television, on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.” Until now her biggest movie role was the uncomfortable but earnest high school math teacher Ms. Norbury in the comedy “Mean Girls,” which she also wrote. (“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores,” Ms. Norbury warns the mean girls and their female prey. “It just makes it O.K. for guys to call you sluts and whores.”) Like a lot of comedies “Mean Girls” has its devilish cake and eats it too, wagging an unpersuasive finger at the very cruelty it skillfully deploys. Ms. Fey may not want girls to call one another sluts, but she’s all too happy to call them that herself.
There’s often a degree of sadism in this kind of comic one-two punch, and while some performers appear to direct the cruelty inward — think of Jerry Lewis and Ben Stiller wringing squirmy, uneasy laughs out of the humiliations rained down on their characters — that doesn’t seem to be Ms. Fey’s style. Certainly it isn’t what she’s called on to do in “Baby Mama,” in which she plays a snappy, sardonic individualist who, much like Ms. Fey herself, works in a male-dominated industry (here, as an executive in an organic grocery chain similar to Whole Foods) and favors the kind of sexy librarian look (high-heeled shoes, low-cut blouses and dark-frame glasses) that signals there’s a hot body to go along with that feverishly smart brain.
“Baby Mama,” which was written and directed by the newcomer Michael McCullers, yet another “Saturday Night Live” alumnus, opens with Ms. Fey’s character, Kate Holbrook, eyeballing babies like a hungry wolf. Everyone has a pitter-pattering Tater Tot but Kate, who lives alone in her generically appointed Philadelphia apartment (the film was also shot in New York) and has few contacts outside her job, extended family and wisecracking doorman, Oscar (Romany Malco). Basically she’s Rhoda with thinner thighs, which I guess means that she’s Mary Richards. But this being 2008 and not the women’s-liberated 1970s, it isn’t enough for Kate to be a swinging single: she wants a baby and she wants it now. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Ms. Poehler).
At 36 Ms. Poehler is at least 10 years too old for the role, as the softly focused close-ups suggest, but she’s a pip. She’s the ball that bounces against Ms. Fey’s formidable wall, a nonstop, joyfully watchable whirligig. Drawn in broad, often crude strokes, Angie is dumber than the usual dumb blonde so beloved of the movies largely because she’s also coded as white trash, a kind of urban Daisy Mae, complete with short shorts, wads of chewing gum and a tag-along buffoon, Carl (Dax Shepard). If Angie works at all, it’s because Ms. Poehler puts a sweet spin on her character’s gaffes, whether she’s yelping in horror at the unfamiliar taste of water or squatting in a sink when nature makes an untimely call.
There’s more, though not much, mostly some amusing nonsense from Steve Martin as Kate’s boss, a belligerently New Agey entrepreneur with an unkind ponytail. Greg Kinnear also shows up now and again as Kate’s inevitable love interest, perhaps so things don’t overheat when Angie moves in. Not that anyone need worry about this female odd couple, given that Ms. Fey, who doesn’t have the acting chops that might invest her character with some personality, has been forced to play it straight and narrow. The close-up medium of television is more forgiving of those comics who tend to stand in the middle of the frame as if they had just been planted. But unlike Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, Ms. Fey doesn’t even have a funny voice.
That’s too bad, because she is genuinely funny. And if there’s anything the movies could use it is funny women, especially those who earn laughs by keeping their clothes on and their dignity (more or less) intact. Under the old Hollywood system, the studio boss might have ordered up a dance coach for Ms. Fey, maybe a few lessons on how to walk across a set or move her upper body once in a while. She might not have been able to rip loose as a writer-performer, which makes the idea of her developing a simultaneous on-and-off-screen presence all the more tantalizing. Real funny women — Mae West, Elaine May — come along every few decades, so the timing seems right. But the clock is ticking.
“Baby Mama” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Some gentle raunch.
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Written and directed by Michael McCullers; director of photography, Daryn Okada; edited by Bruce Green; music by Jeff Richmond; production designer, Jess Gonchor; produced by Lorne Michaels and John Goldwyn; released by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes.
WITH: Tina Fey (Kate), Amy Poehler (Angie), Greg Kinnear (Rob), Dax Shepard (Carl), Romany Malco (Oscar), Steve Martin (Barry), Maura Tierney (Caroline), Holland Taylor (Rose) and Sigourney Weaver (Chaffee Bicknell).