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Unlike the fact-filled best-seller that “inspired” it, the big-screen version of What to Expect When You’re Expecting has nothing much to say — nothing new, that is. Spun from mostly stale scenarios about couples facing first-time parenthood, the ensemble comedy sticks firmly to the middle of the road as it aims to reassure and comfort. Babies are miracles, pregnancy can be a physical ordeal, and men and women aren’t always on the same page of the emotional guidebook. That’s about as deep as it gets.
But predictable laughs likely will be more of an enticement than a repellent to the movie’s target audience. With an able cast led by Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Elizabeth Banks and a built-in curiosity factor for the multitudes who swear by the book, the crowd-pleaser is primed for a smooth delivery at the box office, especially as a femme-centric alternative to Battleship and The Dictator.
The screenplay, credited to Shauna Cross and Heather Hach, revolves around five expectant couples. (It was shot in Atlanta, with locally headquartered Delta Airlines getting prime product placement). Their stories crisscross, with some of the interconnections revealed late in the overlong proceedings — gratuitous asides more than dramatic kickers.
For some couples, pregnancy is an accident, for others an obsession. In the former category are reality stars Jules (Diaz) and Evan (Matthew Morrison) and two twentysomethings (Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford) whose romance has just begun. In fine rom-com tradition, Rosie and Marco’s flirtation begins in competition: They’re food-truck chefs, comparing kitchen wounds, and the energy in their early encounters borders on the screwball. Kendrick and Crawford are compellingly low-key in the only story strand that’s cliche-free.
Competition is a connective glue in the movie. The reality TV factor looms large, with nods to celebrity dance-offs, The Biggest Loser and, less overtly, The Great Food Truck Race. That makes sense in a movie built for wide appeal. There are also more psychological, if not nuanced, contests afoot.
Among those pining for a baby is Wendy (Banks), the owner of a motherhood emporium called Breast Choice. A gifted comic actress, Banks makes her character’s generic transition — from ovulation-app-wielding control freak to a woman at the mercy of her biology — specific and watchable. Wendy’s mild-mannered husband (Ben Falcone) is locked in a lifelong competition with his alpha-male father, a NASCAR hot dog played by a perfectly cast Dennis Quaid, whose young wife (Brooklyn Decker) also happens to be pregnant. In the name of one-upmanship, she’s carrying twins and still doing Pilates, a supermodel blonde having a super-pregnancy.
The least comic thread of the story involves Lopez’s freelance photographer and her supportive but not-quite-ready-for-fatherhood husband (Rodrigo Santoro) as they prepare for adoption. Like everything else here, it’s only partially realized.
Amid the would-be and actual laughs, the screenplay tries to drum up drama, but every disagreement and tension is treated superficially and summarily resolved. A golf-cart race that’s the climactic encounter for two characters sums up the level of narrative risk. And with each character serving chiefly as a facet of the Multifaceted Expectant Experience, no subplot warrants true involvement. One couple receives bad news in a scene that recalls a tender moment from Up, with none of the emotional impact.
The screenwriters weave in a few factoids from the source material about the side effects and complications of impending motherhood, and director Kirk Jones orchestrates a number of broad-stroke montages that take the couples from ultrasound through labor. Offering male-perspective commentary of sorts is a quartet of househusband dads, led by Chris Rock — a geek chorus laden with the latest baby gear and fully embracing their married-guy envy of ultra-bachelor Davis (Joe Manganiello).
Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Everybody’s Fine) imparts no style or point of view to the hopscotching material. Karen Patch’s costumes lend some character-defining oomph to the production’s sitcom-smooth surface, while an unlikely Mark Mothersbaugh contributes an unobtrusive score.
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