Baby Mama (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has become a time-honored tradition that stars of Saturday Night Live, upon graduating from the no-longer-funny late night show, elect to spread their wings and strive for cinematic greatness. With a few notable exceptions, most have crashed and burned in forgettable fashion to never be heard from again or to become the punch lines of jokes that are generally as funny as the ones they told during their SNL tenure. Baby Mama is the first SNL-inspired movie to star two female members of the ensemble: Tina Fey, who has been doing nicely for herself since leaving, and her gal-pal Amy Poehler, who's still on. While Baby Mama manages to avoid the pit of awfulness into which many of its predecessors have sunk, it achieves nothing more impressive than mediocrity. It's genial but stale, and neither side-splittingly hilarious nor painfully unfunny. In short, it's like a great many cinematic comedies that recycle comfortable plots and don't try anything daring.

Kate (Fey) is a Philadelphia working girl - a woman who has put her personal life to one side so she can concentrate on climbing the corporate ladder of the organic grocery store chain where she is employed. Her boss, a new age hippie type named Barry (Steve Martin), likes her aura and decides to make her a V.P., thus rewarding all her hard work. But Kate hears the maternal clock ticking and decides she wants to have a baby. With no husband and a uterus that has a 1-in-1 million chance of producing an infant, she elects to go the surrogate mother route. So she pays high tech fertility magnate Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver) $100,000 to find her the perfect woman to warm her bun in the oven. The choice is the white trashy Angie (Amy Poehler), who does all the things an expectant mother shouldn't do: drinks, smokes, eats junk food, and watches bad TV. When she breaks up with her boyfriend, Carl (Dax Shepard), she moves in with Kate and they become a female Odd Couple. Further complicating Kate's life is that she has fallen for Rob (Greg Kinnear), a guy who runs a smoothy shop in the neighborhood where she's planning to open a new store.

One thing positive to say about Baby Mama is that it doesn't try too hard for its laughs. For the most part, the humor is low key so that when a joke fails (something that happens with regularity), it's not as obvious as in more in-your-face comedies. The movie does occasionally get silly (as when Angie can't figure out how to open the child-proofed toilet and pees in the sink), but it generally stays far away from the over-the-top territory where Will Ferrell has pitched his tent. The screenplay for Baby Mama has its share of amusing moments but few viewers are likely to leave theaters with aching sides.

Baby Mama is essentially a buddy movie, although the trajectory of its formula is one commonly associated with romantic comedies. The two protagonists can't stand each other when they first meet, gradually bond and come to care for each other, are divided as a result of contrived complications, and reunite for the happy ending. (Lest readers be misled by this comparison, there's nothing romantic in the friendship of Kate and Angie - they both have male love interests.) The sense of déjà vu is because the storyline is familiar, and writer/director Michael McCullers, making his directorial debut after being a SNL scribe during the late '90s, doesn't do a lot with it that could be considered interesting or original.

Tina Fey has a warm and likeable presence, and this is her first legitimate opportunity to show it off on the big screen. Not surprisingly, she and Amy Poehler display excellent chemistry and that's part of what makes Baby Mama work more than what one might expect from the plot description. Greg Kinnear provides a pleasant, non-threatening addition to the cast. Steve Martin, however, is probably around for too long. He takes what might have been amusing as a one-joke cameo and drags it out over several appearances until it's no longer funny. Maura Tierney is underused but, based on her recent work, she must be getting used to reasonably high billing for someone who doesn't get more than a handful of lines. Several SNL regulars (Will Forte and Fred Armisen) show their faces in inconsequential roles.

As is often true with comedies, all the best jokes are in the trailer so those who have seen it have absorbed the best Baby Mama has to offer, at least in the humor department. Fey and company do their best to provide an emotional component to the production but, as with many films that rely too much on the familiar, the characters never seem more than half-formed and this stints our ability to appreciate their limited arcs. There's nothing terribly wrong with Baby Mama but it's probably better suited for viewing on television, where many of the participants cut their teeth. This is small screen stuff masquerading as something bigger.

Baby Mama (United States, 2008)

Director: Michael McCullers
Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Dax Shepard, Romany Malco, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, Maura Tierney
Screenplay: Michael McCullers
Cinematography: Daryn Okada
Music: Jeff Richmond
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1