Baby Mama (2008): Comedy Starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler

Tribeca Film Fest 2008 (Premiere)–Though a timely social comedy about career women, motherhood, biological and surrogate parents, and hearth & home, “Baby Mama” is nonetheless an essentially high-concept film.

It unfolds like an extended episode of a TV sitcom, largely due to the creative input of the gifted Tina Fey (“30 Rock”) and Amy Poehler, still better-known jointly for their appearances in “Saturday Night Live” show.

Drawing on such familiar comedies as “The Odd Couple,” with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, and “Baby Boom,” the charming Diane Keaton comedy of the 1980s, thematically, the movie is soft, with a humor that’s broad and not as biting and sharp as that displayed in Tina Fey’s previous comedy, the wonderful “Mean Girls.”

Watching the movie, you could almost visualize the creative conferences of the talents in front and behind the camera, including writer-producer Michael Lorne pitching, tossing around, and playing with mostly proven comedic concepts and ideas, sort of, “Let’s have the two women (Fey and Poehler) represent different social classes and share the same apartment for nine months.”

Even so, the film is more sociologically than artistically significant, serving as a chick flick with an edge, one dominated by women who play both the lead and supporting roles. The estimable comedienne Sigourney Weaver, Holland Taylor, and Mura Tierney are also in the picture. More importantly, “Baby Mama” serves as a “corrective” counterpoint to the male-driven fare that has come out of the “factory” of Judd Apathow, Hollywood’s King of Comedy. Most of Apathow’s production, particularly the good ones, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up,” “Superbad,” and most recently “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” revolve around young or middle-aged men, who are immature and self-absorbed but also gentle and sympathetic.

Here, the protag is career-driven Kate Holbrook (Fey), the recently promoted vice president of the Round Earth Organic Market, who’s now at her prime. Meticulous, fastidious, and highly organized, Kate deludes herself that she is happy and her life is in order. What else an ambitious thirtysomething woman could desire Financially secure, she has a good-paying, satisfying job, a mentor boss (Steve Martin) who adores her, a lush apartment in a nice Philadelphia neighborhood.

But, alas, Kate is not impervious to peer, family, and social pressure–and to the ticking of the biological clock. Pushing 40 (she’s 37), Kate begins to realize that putting a personal life on the back burner, while concentrating on her career, involved a heavy price, not to mention upsetting and alienating her mom Rose (Holland Taylor).

In short, like Diane Keaton in “Baby Boom,” who was also in her late 30s, Kate is beginning to experience latent maternal instincts and a deep yearning to have a baby. And like the protags of the TV series “Sex and the City,” more in the early chapters, Kate is unmarried, with no immediate prospects of finding a meaningful relationship with a responsible man of the “marrying kind.”

Influenced by what she sees and reads around her, Kate decides to become a single mom, which delights her younger, liberal sister Caroline (Maura Tierney), and proudly heads to the most famous and reliable sperm bank around, when the pregnancy tests turn negative, and her plan to have a child is derailed after being told by a fertility specialist that her probability of getting pregnant is only a million-to-one.

Undaunted, Kate visits the surrogate center run by another strong femme, Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver), who arranges for her to meet a potential surrogate, Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler). As Kate and wise-guy doorman Oscar (Romany Malco) wait outside their building for her arrival from the suburbs, a battered car pulls up. Angie and her common-law husband Carl (Dax Shepard) emerge from the wreck bickering, before collecting themselves to meet Kate and inspect her home. Impressed by Kate’s self-presentation and her considerable bank account, Angie agrees to be her surrogate.

After Angie’s pregnancy test prove positive, Kate begins a long preparation process for becoming a good mom, reading childcare books, watching childbirth DVDs, baby-proofing the apartment, while balancing her biggest work project yet, finding a site and building the company’s flagship store. In this section, “Baby Mama” is up-to the-moment in using the latest literature and concepts, both scholarly and pop cultural, about becoming a mother.

The creators know that most funny comedies thrive on unpredictable situations of chaos, and thus they throw the initially idyllic relationship of the two women into a state of disorderotherwise the movie, which is already predictable, has nowhere to go. Following the strategy of the “Odd Couple” and numerous imitations and spin-offs, Kate’s orderly life is turned upside down, when Angie shows up at her doorstep with no place to live.

What seems at first an opportunity for the structured Kate to “tame the shrew,” and turn the naturally vibrant and spontaneous Angie into the “perfect expectant” mom, devolves into a comic battle of wills, personalities, and lifestyle as Angie resists the strict rules and rigid discipline of prenatal parenting.

We know that eventually the two femmes will reach modus operandi and compromising middle-ground. And, indeed, gradually, Kate is beginning to be inspired by the free spirit that has invaded her home, letting her guards down. She even begins a true romance of her own, with the local juice-bar owner Rob (Greg Kinnear).

As Kate and Angie struggle their way through comic preparation for the baby’s arrival, they discover there are two kinds of family: the one you’re born to and the one you make. The truths that the women discover about themselves and each other are a bit retro, lagging behind the zeitgeist. Ideologically speaking, to be in tune with (not to mention ahead of) their times, “Baby Mama” needed to be made as a movie at least five years ago.

Ditto for the names chosen for the leads. I don’t know what the specific sources or reasons are, but in American pop culture and Hollywood movies, Kate denotes and connotes upper-middle class (Kate Hepburn “Kiss Me Kate” anyone), whereas Angie is more typically the name of working-class woman, as was evident a decade ago in the failed comedy “Angie,” starring Geena Davis.

As directed by Michael McCullers, who had previously penned “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and “Undercover Brother,” “Baby Mama” is unevenly paced and visually shapeless. It’s a scene-by-scene picture, lacking a unified arch or consistent style, but it contains enough healthy humor and charming performances to make it a worthy entertaining experience.

Cast

Kate Holbrook – Tina Fey
Angie Ostrowiski – Amy Poehler
Rob – Greg Kinnear
Carl – Dax Shepard
Oscar – Romany Malco
Chaffee Bicknell – Sigourney Weaver
Barry – Steve Martin
Caroline – Maura Tierney
Rose – Holland Taylor
Fertility specialist – John Hodgman
Birthing teacher – Siobhan Fallon HoganDr. Manheim – Denis OHare
Dan – Stephen Mailer
Judge – James Rebhorn

Credits

A Universal release presented in association with Relativity Media of a Michaels/Goldwyn production.
Produced by Lorne Michaels, John Goldwyn. Executive producers, Jill Messick, Louise Rosner, Ryan Kavanaugh.
Co-producers, Erin David, Kay Cannon.
Directed, written by Michael McCullers.
Camera: Daryn Okada.
Editor: Bruce Green.
Music: Jeff Richmond; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson.
Production designer: Jess Gonchor.
Art director: David Swayze.
Set decorator: Susan Bode-Tyson.
Costume designer: Renee Ehrlich Kalfus.
Sound: Allan Byer; supervising sound editor, Becky Sullivan; re-recording mixers, Marc Fishman, Tony Lamberti.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 100 Minutes.