Saturday 26 January 2013

Expecto rubbish

Hey, remember when ensemble romantic comedies were all the rage? Okay, that's a bit misleading. First, it was more a trickle than a flood: you could probably count the subgenre's films on the fingers of one hand even if you'd suffered a moderately gruesome circular saw accident. And second, it wasn't exactly a long time ago. The fad's progenitor, He's Just Not That Into You, graced theatres in 2009, and the last gasp came in late 2011, with New Year's Eve.

Which means that last year's What to Expect When You're Expecting was late to the party, explaining both the film's unimpressive box office - a $41 million North American gross on a $40 million budget - and the general warmed-over feeling of the whole thing, as if everybody involved was just trying to get it over with so they could go home, or move on to less embarrassing projects. Which I get - excepting the over-the-hill stars, What to Expect When You're Expecting wastes a great deal of talent that could be more fruitfully employed elsewhere.

As per the genre, What to Expect has not one plot but half a dozen, plus assorted minor characters and cameos. The entire thing is connected only tentatively, and by 'tentatively' I mean that dialogue occasionally points out these people know each other, but they virtually never meet. So, we have the following elements:

- Photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and her husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro), unable to conceive, decide to adopt a baby from Africa, but Alex is fearful about parenthood.

- Food truck chef Rosie (Anna Kendrick) becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with friendly competitor Marco (Chace Crawford), but miscarries. Can they mend their strained relationship?

- Fitness guru and reality TV star Jules (Cameron Díaz) and star dancer Evan (Matthew Morrison) are about to have a baby, but they seem unable to agree on anything.

- Baby-book author and shop owner Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) finds pregnancy more stressful than she expected, while her husband Gary (Ben Falcone) feels constantly upstaged by his race car driver father (Dennis Quaid) and disturbingly young stepmother (Brooklyn Decker).

-In addition to this, there are smaller supporting roles for the likes of Chris Rock, and pointless cameos that include Cheryl Cole.

It's a hell of a lot of plot, or at least a lot of moving parts; and I appreciate that getting it all to intersect in some way isn't easy, but hermetically sealing the strands off from each other really isn't helping the film. But, though uninspired it might be, I can't in good conscience call it rote or derivative. You see, What to Expect When You're Expecting does away entirely with the time-honoured tradition of arcs. The film's storylines have no setup or payoff, they sort of just trudge along, and what conflict there is is not so much resolved as waved away at the ninety-minute mark: 'Hey look, they have a baby now! That makes all problems disappear forever!' Which is probably not something to expect when you're expecting. But I don't have any children, so what do I know?

The death-knell for the film, though, is that it just isn't funny - and not in the manner of Definitely, Maybe, which included next to no jokes despite nominally being a romantic comedy. Rather, What to Expect When You're Expecting fancies itself hilarious but ends up merely loud and obnoxious. The only bits that got a chuckle out of me revolved around Davis (Joe Manganiello), and I know it must be the writing because Manganiello is much worse here than he's ever been on True Blood.

I can't blame writers Shauna Cross and Heather Hach for the strange cultural disconnect over the bizarrely prominent circumcision storyline, but it's undoubtedly their mess of a screenplay that undoes What to Expect When You're Expecting. While neither author is a veteran, Cross wrote the fantastic Whip It (2009), so it's fair to view this as a disappointment rather than a predictable failure. It isn't, anyway, much to do with the rest of the production, which is the straightforward point-and-shoot affair one expects in this genre. Kirk Jones, the man doing the pointin' and the shootin', does his best to stay out of everyone's way, and the editing mostly sighs and does the best it can with what it's given.

With this script it's unfair to condemn a slew of bad performances, but it's probably worth stressing the one good performance: Anna Kendrick, whom I've never really liked in anything before (she tends to get saddled with unflattering scripts), creates the one fully likeable character and sells the film's single emotional scene that manages to connect. But then again, acting next to the vacuum that is Chace Crawford might make more than one actor seem like a great thespian.

For a film premised on the fact that women really want children and their men indulge them, What to Expect When You're Expecting is not as sexist as might have been supposed: full of offensive and deeply unfunny gender stereotyping, yes, but it does portray active fathers in a positive light, and allows two women out of four a more complex reaction than sheer exuberance at the news that they are pregnant. So, you know, that's something. But it's still thoroughly unnecessary, mostly ineffective fluff, and I want the hours of my life that I wasted on it back.

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