What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) –

The appeal of the recent phenomenon of romantic comedies starring a cavalcade of A-listers eludes me. Perhaps they serve the same purpose as the weekly stars magazines that clutter up the checkout line of the grocery store. Look, they’re all here! How would I know who’s famous if I didn’t have this helpful guide? This can’t be it, however, because even those magazines offer more depth into the lives of the celebrities. Maybe it’s just a case of value shopping; why not get five romantic comedies for the price of one? This doesn’t hold water, though, because five bad romantic comedies are not better than one decent one and What to Expect When You’re Expecting (2012) proves that.

It’s not really that the movie is all that disappointing; it’s just that it’s set up to fail. Big ensemble pieces are hard enough to do anyway, and only a certain number of people can balance them all without it feeling like some are getting short shrift (and even Paul Thomas Anderson, who has the knack, seems to have gotten tired of the work), and that’s if you’re willing to push your running time. For a comedy like this, you’ve got to keep it under two hours, and to do that and tell five different stories, the first thing to go is the characterization and the development of emotional attachments. Well, once those are gone, what have you got really?

Beautiful people, I suppose, and What to Expect When You’re Expecting pays that off in spades. There’s Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison as a celebrity couple, Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro as a cash-strapped pair looking to adopt, Anna Kendrick and Chase Crawford as unintentional expecting parents, maternity store owner Elizabeth Banks and her husband Ben Falcone who are competing in pregnancy with Falcone’s former race car driver dad played by Dennis Quaid and his sexy new wife Brooklyn Decker who appears to be able to carry twins as if she’d eaten a big sandwich. I’d give you their character names, but they don’t require them; the movie has to speed through stories so fast that part of the appeal boils down to looking at recognizable stars made up to look pregnant. There’s Cameron Diaz with a baby bump! Look at Jennifer Lopez hold that baby!

To help the expecting fathers get ready for their new lives, there is the Dudes, a group of men led by Chris Rock, with infant children who walk around the park with all manner of neonate attached to their chests, arms and strollers. The purpose of the Dudes is to show the newbies that fatherhood cannot be perfected and that mistakes will be made but that children are resilient. They then list off the number of dangers they have exposed their kids to. One of their key tenants is that their wives must never know of their negligence, and one of them even undermines his wife’s hopes of having a sophisticated son by calling the child “Henry” as opposed to his given name “Henri.”

What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t have higher aims than to be anything other than cute and something for parents to smile knowingly at, and, I suppose, it skips over that very low bar. It’s manipulative, of course, as most pregnancy movies are, and while the insistence on five separate stories removes the notion of giving any of them any color or detail, it doesn’t make the proceedings seem to go by any faster. It’s quite a paradox; by speeding up the telling of the individual stories the entire movie starts to drag. It just never settles into a rhythm, very important when delivering a baby, and so it is when you’re making a film.

The Frankenstein of the different narratives also results in tone issues as each story is wildly different (none particularly original, but different just the same), and the juxtaposition of them from scene to scene can rob one of its emotional impact or the other of its potential humor. For example, in one scene two expecting parents are debating whether or not to have their future son circumcised. The mother, who has filled her head with factoids from a plethora of pamphlets, says no, but the father, who is part Jewish and has a personal perspective on the procedure, insists yes. Throughout the scene penis jokes both spoken and visual (while discussing the operation the mother takes a bite of a banana) are made. It’s not riotous; furthermore jokes about male genitalia are fairly low-hanging fruit (see, I just made one), but the scene is a little bouncier and sly than most of the rest of the movie.

The problem is, it comes directly after a scene of a miscarriage and, I don’t know, I didn’t feel like laughing all that much after that. The oscillation between comedy and tragedy is possible but not under those circumstances. Telling a story to an audience in a movie is like telling a story to a friend. Imagine if a friend had just gone through a horrible medical experience; it probably wouldn’t be the best time to pull out the big book of doctor jokes.

Still, What to Expect When You’re Expecting achieves what it wants. Some of the stories work better than others (Banks is quite funny, though the demands of the script turn her into a cartoon, and Ben Falcone is working on a career as the unassuming likable husband) and the bits with the Dudes have a certain appeal but it doesn’t add up to a whole lot. The funny thing is that the movie shows the wide range of different ways people can become parents, and it’s based on a book that, in part at least, is designed to reassure future begetters by showing that, at a certain level, all pregnancies are the same.  

Leave a Reply