I lost sleep over the election. Partly because of my investment in the outcome, certainly, but also because for the first time since I was in my 20s, I regularly stayed up past my bedtime watching Tina Fey’s sharp Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. So when my family planned a relaxing weekend away with another family, I thought Fey’s recent comedy Baby Mama (Michael McCullers, 2008) would be a good rental to toss in the bag. After a busy day at the pumpkin patch, we settled the kids into their beds and settled ourselves in front of the TV, prepared to be entertained.
And so we sat. After a half hour or so, I glanced over at my friend, whose puzzled, expectant expression mirrored my feelings. “It’s not really funny, is it?” she commented. Our husbands opened up their laptops and turned their attention to work, while my friend and I tried to figure out how two brilliantly funny comediennes and a great cast (including Sigourney Weaver, Steve Martin, and Greg Kinnear) had made such a tepid movie.
It’s not that we can’t relate to the story. Tina Fey plays Kate, a thirty-seven year-old career woman who decides not to wait any longer to settle her romantic life: she’s going to have a baby on her own. While waiting fairly hopelessly on the adoption lists, she tries IVF and then hires a surrogate, Angie, played by Amy Poehler. While it’s true that my friend and I are neither single nor successful businesswomen, we did start our families later than average and we both know women who have traveled every possible path to starting a family and suffered any number of obstacles, from miscarriage to stillbirth to planned adoptions falling through. So we’re keenly aware of how lucky we are in our families, and we’re sympathetic viewers.
The film’s performances are sharp. I love Maura Tierney as Kate’s sister, who wrangles her toddler saying, “Hey Tyler, what is this all over you? Chocolate or poop?” and then, to Kate’s horror, gives her son a lick and smiles, “Chocolate!” Sigourney Weaver makes a wonderfully creepy, surprisingly fertile surrogacy center director, who thinks of surrogacy as just another form of outsourcing, like hiring an accountant to do your taxes. The brilliant Romany Malco, as Kate’s doorman Oscar, puts the relationship between Kate and Angie more frankly: “You pay the bills, she had a baby: that’s called a Baby Mama — you ask any black man in Philadelphia.”
Lines like that, early in the film, made me think the movie might really use comedy to take on questions of race and class as they overlay surrogacy and adoption in the US, but the screenwriter, Michael McCullers, holds back in favor of broad stroke stereotypes, especially involving Angie’s common-law husband, Carl, an uncomplicated schemer whose sneaky, tedious machinations nearly take over the film. Worse, the film’s sluggish direction doesn’t keep up with the performers; the camera always lingers a beat too long on a shot or a scene, working at the pace of a sentimental romance rather than a satiric comedy.
The movie is always at its best when it stays with Kate and Angie. Tina Fey can move from physical comedy to poignancy as smoothly as Mary Tyler Moore; a moment after her pack of pregnancy test sticks explodes all over her apartment floor, she awkwardly skates over them into her bathroom, and I felt a little twinge watching her read her motivational post-its: “This is the month!” “Relax – it will happen.” “Be fertile!” Meanwhile Amy Poeher, our generation’s Lucille Ball, is all junk food and trashy clothes, guzzling Red Bull and snacking on Twizzlers, an obstetrician’s nightmare. When she tries to swallow the giant prenatal vitamin Kate gives her, she chokes on the water, disgusted by its unfamiliar flavor. But she has her zingers, too, like in the birthing class, when she suggests that instead of using olive oil for a prepartum perineal massage, maybe a spritz of Pam would do the trick.
The connection between the two women is real, and their performances are almost (but only almost) enough to make even this kind of clunky dialogue moving:
KATE: I’m sorry, it’s just this whole thing is very important to me, and frankly it makes me a little bit crazy that you get to feel it, and experience it, while I just watch. And I might be a little bit jealous.
ANGIE: Jealous? How could you be jealous of me?
The movie spends so much time making the women look goofy, quiet moments like this sound forced. Further, the scene makes us notice that Amy Poehler, much as I adore her, is too mature for this role–anyone old enough to become Kate’s friend, as she’s represented here, would be too old to serve as an agency-approved surrogate.
The film tries to have it both ways, wanting us to laugh at the women, especially Angie, not with them. But then it expects us to be horrified when Kate, angry that she might not get her baby, calls Angie “an ignorant white trash woman that I paid to carry my kid.” The line is shocking and inappropriate, not so much because it indulges in every assumption about surrogacy that the film has only winkingly tried to disprove, but because it’s so far from the relationship Baby Mama depicts. It sounds like a line from some other movie.
Hollywood movies have drawn from Saturday Night Live for years, from the Blues Brothers to Wayne’s World, but we never got to see Gilda Radner or Laraine Newman headline a movie. Baby Mama marks a historic first, and I’m glad the movie was a box office success. But like Sarah Palin learned, it’s not enough to be historic; you’ve got to deliver the goods. I’m confident that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will find their material, and I’d even stay up late to see their next project — as long as they write and direct it themselves.