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Baby Mama (12A)

Rachel Winterbottom on a comedy about surrogacy that just about delivers

Written by . Published on August 5th 2008.

Baby Mama (12A)

Take a dash of America’s Saturday Night Live, a splash of feminism and a pinch of the surreal. Sprinkle liberally with recognisable plot points from every odd-couple film ever and spice it up with a few drops of originality, to taste. Finally, add to the mixture two of the most talented female comedic actors around today and pop it in the oven for 99 minutes. Congratulations, you’ve just made a Baby Mama.

Writer/Director Michael McCullers handles his leading ladies with kid gloves. It’s as if he made a deal with them from the start – as long as they promise to play nice with others, he might, occasionally, let them off the reigns.

After discovering her chances of getting pregnant are one in a million, as a last resort 37-year-old successful business woman, Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey), decides to pay for a surrogate mother. Enter the ‘white trash’ Angela Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) from South Philadelphia, who eagerly volunteers for the $100,000 task of bringing Kate’s much wanted baby into the world.

Kate’s perfect, coaster-ridden existence goes gently awry, however, when Angela splits from her loser boyfriend, Carl Loomis (played by Punked stuntman Dax Shepard), and turns up on her doorstep, suitcase in hand. When the mother of the infant is called into question, who will crack first? Could it be the immaculate Kate, the karaoke-singing Angie – or the audience?

This film could have easily fallen into the very forgettable category of romantic comedies that is mostly populated by Sandra Bullock cast-offs. Thankfully, it neatly sidesteps lukewarm stereotypes and heads straight towards original comedy. And it almost makes it. It’s thanks largely to the two female leads, Poehler and Fey, that it gets as far as it does.

Fans of Fey’s work may be expecting something edgier than the child-protected Baby Mama. And with Saturday Night Live, Mean Girls and TV-show 30 Rock on her writer/producer credentials, who can blame them? It’s clear that Fey’s own work can pack a verbal punch to the funny bone, and while there is no doubt that she has influenced the script, it’s too cutesy to be pure Fey. Writer/director Michael McCullers, also of SNL fame, handles his leading ladies with kid gloves. It’s as if he made a deal with them from the start – as long as they promise to play nice with others, he might, occasionally, let them off the reigns.

Fellow SNL buddy Poehler is there to provide much-needed backup in this odd-couple relationship. The film flashes its aces in the form of a soft-focus insemination to the soundtrack of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s Endless Love – as bizarre as it is brilliant – and Poehler, in pretty much any scene she’s in. The Jerry to Kate’s Tom, Angie can go from effortlessly zinging off a one-liner to breaking your heart with one blink of her tear-filled baby blues.

It is unfortunate that Poehler’s character, as sweet as she is, seems to have fallen out of the White Trash Stereotype tree, hitting every beer-sodden branch on the way down. Angie certainly could have been worse though, if writer/director McCullers had dared substitute her eating a whole tube of Pringles while pregnant (god forbid), with her having one night stands in Kate’s bed and leaving more than just crumbs on her sheets.

But the film isn’t trying for realism, it’s about friendship and breaking down boundaries and finding love in unlikely places. It’s fiction, in other words. As insubstantial as the giant bucket of popcorn you’ll probably make your way through during the showing, though no less enjoyable.

Sigourney Weaver shines as the creepily fertile, 50-something Chaffee Bicknell, owner of the surrogacy centre. Despite existing for comedic purposes only, Weaver is so surprisingly spot-on in her timing that it seems a shame that she hasn’t been given more edgy roles to play in comedy in the past.

Even Weaver is overshadowed, however, by Steve Martin – here resembling a powdery old dame – who plays Kate’s environmentally concerned boss, Barry. He’s effortlessly comical in every scene he’s in, playing the pretentious pseudo-new-age hippy to eerie perfection.

Baby Mama does suffer from a few other tumbles along with way. There’s the fact that having a baby in no way impacts on Kate’s high-flying career. Apparently, when you’re rich you can have your cake and pay someone else to eat it for you. It’s ok for Angie to be ‘white trash’ (as she’s portrayed) because she’s redeemably fashionable. And the pro-single mother message gets lost in the convenient romance with Greg Kinnear’s two-dimensional smoothie bar owner, Rob. And the ending is so twee it should come in a gift basket tied with teddy-shaped balloons.

But who said comedy had to be original? With lines like ‘I want you to put your baby inside of me’, surely the film’s clichés can be forgiven? Tina Fey-lite this might be, and most likely one for the girls, but this is a film that, despite being wrapped in cotton wool, would still find the only edge in a padded room and bounce itself off it. It is about breaking through boundaries, after all.


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