Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Expect" appealingly cast but formulaic and merely adequate



What to Expect When You're Expecting (2012) 
110 min., rated PG-13. 

Chemistry can count for a lot in romantic comedies, especially these barren days. Chemistry isn't really the problem here, but rather the material at hand and how it's executed. "Inspired by" a popular 1984 pregnancy guidebook of the same name, "What to Expect When You're Expecting" is essentially "He's Just Not That Into You" if those characters were less fleshed out and wound up preggers. Directed by Kirk Jones (2009's "Everybody's Fine"), this is another star-topped comedy that intertwines various relationships, this time faced with the joys and fears of impending parenthood. It's not unpleasant or unentertaining to watch, but has nothing new to say—being pregnant sucks but it's all worth it!—and simply goes through the motions. 

Live on the fifteenth season of a "Dancing with the Stars"-type show, reality-TV fitness guru Jules (Cameron Diaz) realizes she's pregnant with dance partner Evan (Matthew Morrison). The rest of the characters, residing in Atlanta, are connected by watching Jules on "Celebrity Dance Factor." Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), an author and owner of The Breast Choice boutique, has been trying to have a baby for two years with her dentist husband Gary (Ben Falcone), until they finally get a plus sign. When Gary and Wendy share their happy news with Gary's alpha-male NASCAR-driving father Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), he one-ups his son once again: his perky trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) also happens to be expecting…twins! Freelance photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is ready to adopt an Ethiopian baby with music-business husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) who's getting cold feet over fatherhood. College-aged Rosie (Anna Kendrick), a food-truck chef, reunities with old high school flame Marco (Chace Crawford), who also runs a food truck, and their casual hookup leads to a bun in the oven. 

Using the non-fiction "Bible" by Heidi Murkoff as a springboard, screenwriters Shauna Cross (2009's "Whip It") and Heather Hach's (2003's "Freaky Friday") script only finds a few real truths in these thin-as-soup vignettes without digging too deep. Almost to a fault, director Jones fleetly hops from expectant couple to couple, managing tonal shifts with some honesty and sensitivity (when dealing with a miscarriage or one character losing their job) but only letting us care about a few of the stories rather than all five. And those nine months fly by pretty quickly, with only one scene of snow falling in between, but for three of the couples, everything comes to a head (or, out comes a head) at the same Atlanta hospital on the very same night. Do you think one of them will be screaming for an epidural? The rest is a frothy, commercially viable sitcom that wants to please the masses, but it only has a handful of moments on the comedy front. A father-son golf cart race, ending in Ramsey's pool, is the film's comic nadir, along with some hacky slapstick involving a toddler falling down a lot and picking up a dead cat from the woods. 

The impossibly good-looking cast does fine, unchallenging work with what they have. All of these charismatic actors are good company, but none of their characters are developed into more than blandly likable types with cool jobs. As the type-A Wendy, Banks nails all of the hormonal, vulnerable changes that a woman experiences when carrying a fetus. She becomes so overwhelmed that she can't control her shrieky tantrums and flatulence. Falcone (Melissa McCarthy's husband from "Bridesmaids") is also quite funny as her doting husband Gary Cooper (yes, named after the actor). Diaz and Morrison play off of each other well as the celebrity couple, and both get to dabble in some "Biggest Loser"/"Dancing with the Stars" parody. Lopez and Santoro make a nice couplethe former actually read this movie's paperback in her previous preggers rom-com, 2010's pedestrian "The Back-up Plan"and the adorable Kendrick and hunky Crawford share chemistry as the youngest couple. Quaid (not an actor prone to comedy) and Decker (showing what else she can do besides playing a swimsuit-with-legs in "Just Go with It") also seem to be getting loose and having fun. 

As Wendy's store employee Janice, Rebel Wilson (who, as Kristen Wiig's strange roommate in "Bridesmaids," memorably poured a bag of frozen peas on her bleeding Mexican Drinking Worm tattoo) steals the show every time she's on screen. Her presence is unfettered and her delivery acerbic. She's such an out-there go-getter that somebody better give Wilson a one-woman show. And when she's not in a scene, the "dude group" (Rob Huebel, Chris Rock, Amir Talai, and Thomas Lennon) bring the funny. When Holly senses her hubby's reluctance to be a father, she sends Alex to the "dudes," a gang of dads who parade through the park with their kids in tricked-out strollers and share their fatherhood truths. "Last week, my kid ate a cigarette," one says, but they tell daddy-to-be Alex there's a "no judging" policy in their dad circle. One almost wishes their chorus improv wasn't diluted to such a PG-13 safety net and that the film revolved more around these guys, especially Rock (a real daddy who knows a thing or two), since that's where most of the energy and relatability go. The buff Joe Manganiello (HBO's "True Blood") also appears with these dudes on occasion, playing their bachelor idol Davis that jogs around the Atlanta park, but mostly stands around with his shirt off or does pull-ups with one arm. Also turning up in small roles are Wendi McLendon-Covey (the third "Bridesmaids" co-star here) as Holly's friend, who only gets a few amusing quips when her character is drunk, and the invaluable Megan Mullally, playing herself as Evan's next TV dance partner in an extended cameo, gets in a circumcision joke. 

With the promising line-up of attractive, appealing, and talented stars, you'd expect "What to Expect When You're Expecting" to fire on all cylinders. Had the script been polished and punched-up, the film might have been more than formulaic and merely adequate. Cute at best and shallow at worst, it's just an Ashton Kutcher and Hector Elizondo short of being a cousin to either of Garry Marshall's empty-headed vanity shows (read: "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve"). Expect the bare minimum of a glossy studio comedy because that's all you're going to get.

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