The premise of this star-studded comedy - let's have kids together but remain "just friends" - may be hackneyed, but the heartfelt laughs feel fresh.
Julie and Jason are New York neighbors, best friends since college. Julie (Jennifer Westfeldt) and Jason (Adam Scott) are both in their 30s and both want kids.
It's just that they want them without what they see are the pitfalls that face all their "Friends With Kids" -- marriages strained to the breaking point, the loss of romance and freedom, the seismic shift in priorities.
They want to cheat, to beat the system that beats loving couples into exhausted, testy, myopic parents. So they'll have a baby, share raising it, and continue to date until they stumble into Mr. or Ms. Right.
What can go wrong with that?
Westfeldt, New York's chronicler of the perils of dating and relationships in the cruel, cold city ("Kissing Jessica Stein" and "Ira & Abbey"), has taken that sitcom-ready situation and spun it into her best film, a witty, warm comedy that easily invites comparison to the works of Woody Allen. "Friends With Kids" is like a Woody Allen romantic comedy -- with more heart.
Julie and Jason are part of a whole circle of "couples" when we meet them. Ben (Jon Hamm) and Missy (Kristen Wiig) and Leslie (Maya Rudolph) and Alex (Chris O'Dowd) may have their problems. But when they do their birthday gatherings in semi-swank restaurants, at least they're not like "those people" -- the ones who bring screaming brats into pricey eateries.
"Are they even allowed in here?"
Words you will eat, my friends. Because that circle soon starts procreating. When Jason and Julie -- who go through girlfriends and boyfriends in short order -- see what child-rearing does to the other couples, that's when they come up with their plan. Are they both all in?
"I will be 100 percent committed to this. Half of the time."
The movie has wry observations about parenting (as viewed by outsiders) and comically judgmental snark. ("It's the baby card. They all play it.") Westfeldt, a decent actress and competent director but a superb comedy writer, throws wonderful twists into what common sense tells us will not work -- the idea of having children without the loving parents who should be their role models. Maybe, she suggests, it can work. Society certainly is putting those rules to the test.
The cast is terrific, and it's a tribute to Westfeldt that she gives underused actors (Scott, Rudolph) a chance to shine, and finds warmth in the often-smarmy Edward Burns and nice acting chops in Megan Fox -- they play love interests of the new parents, Julie and Jason.
"Friends With Kids" doesn't reinvent the parenting romantic comedy. But every now and then, it's good to have a fresh take on why nobody "beats the system" and gets away with it.