Thursday, May 3, 2012

Happy Endings: Friends with Kids


While watching the director’s commentary of Atonement, Joe Wright’s final comments articulated something inside of me that had been brewing for quite some time.  Wright said that he used to believe happy endings were weak, but after making Pride and Prejudice, he realized that happy endings were brave.  Interesting commentary for Atonement since Briony struggles to create a happy ending equal to or greater than her crime, setting free the characters trapped inside her mind.  Instantly I reminisced with the most recent movie memory of mine, Friends with Kids, as this feeling with newfound words was all wrapped up within it. Jennifer Westfeldt writes, directs, and stars in the RomCom about a couple of friends who decide to have a baby without all the drama that comes with being in a relationship.   Westfeldt not only gives us a happy ending but, in my opinion, also gives us a lesson in both narrowing and expanding the scope of our perception.  A world without happy endings would be a sad world indeed; days filled with gray skies and only emotions hate and greed.  Though one may say, “That’s the world I see!”  All it takes is a closer look to see a day filled with happy endings.  Whether it’s too narrow or short, wide or far, a quick adjustment of the lens, a new dose in depth of field and our mise en scene becomes filled with new possibilities.
I’d like to begin my analysis of Friends with Kids by referencing a classic, Alfred Hitchcock’s RearWindow.  Rear Window starts with a conversation between Jeff, played by Jimmy Stewart, and his nurse Stella, played by Thelma Ritter, in which they discuss the intricacies of marriage—a conversation which strikes at the heart of Friends with Kids.  Stella is busting Jeff’s chops because he is afraid to marry the gorgeous Lisa Fremont.  She tries to convince Jeff there is something abnormal about the whole situation.  He isn’t ready for marriage he says, an admission Jason, Adam Scott’s character in Friends with Kids, is unable to reach early on in Jennifer Westfeldt’s film.  However, Jeff and Jason share the same inability to see the perfect woman standing right in front of them.
Stella says, “Look Mr. Jefferies I’m not an educated woman but I can tell you one thing, when a man and woman see each other and like each other, they outta come together, WHAM, like a couple of taxis on Broadway.  Not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”  To which Jeff retorts, “There’s an intelligent way to approach marriage.”  “Intelligence,” Stella interrupts, “nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.  Heh, modern marriage,” she scoffs.  “We’ve progressed emotionally,” Jeff begins to reprimand; only to be cut off again by Stella.  “Baloney!” she exclaims, “Once it was see somebody, get excited, get married.  Now it’s read alotta books, fence with alotta four syllable words, psychoanalyze each other until you can’t tell the difference between a petting party and a civil service exam.”  The scene ends for me where Jeff says, “People have different emotional levels,” which, of course, is undeniably true.  Strangely, Jason and Julie in Friends with Kids begin at the same emotional level but suffer from a similar inability to come together in “perfect” matrimony.
Many of the implications drawn from the conversations concocted by Hitchcock are seemingly in full agreement with those implications I find in Westfeldt’s film.  This same battle of common sense and human nature versus intelligence and human will is all throughout Friends with Kids.  The first shot illustrates the intelligence/human will side of Julie and Jason as of the movie opens on a ringing cell phone resting where, on Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.  Our main character answers the call but who is on the other line?  His female doppelganger reading what, Christopher Hitchens’s God is NOT Great.  I think these should be, but at the very least are subliminal, cues to the wide eyed “modern” audience of young couples all graphed somewhere on this relationship graph of readiness and emotional levels.  It tells us, these characters are intelligent modern people just like us.  They are psychologically stable, heterosexual characters we can instantly agree with—in fact, they seem to be the only sensible ones in each situation.  They disarm us at once, guiding us along a controlled path which eventually leads us to the errors of our modern ways.
After Jason’s immature relationship with a “hot” dancer and Julie’s overly sweet fill in, and opposite, of Jason, we start to realize there is something abnormal about our two heroes’ ability to commit.  I think both Hitchcock and Westfeldt would agree that the real problem lies with the fear of castration, for both male and female character in Westfeldt’s case.  This is probably due to a lot of things, mostly it being a female writer/director, but also because the females of her world are allowed more freedoms.  But I find it interesting that the female characters in her film often choose to fill similar roles traditionally held by female characters.  They are, however, allowed to be openly funny and individual, liberating for both character and observer.
Lately I’ve been studying the hero’s journey through watching lectures of Joseph Campbell and reading some of his books.  I have noticed the story of the hero told over and over again, not only in film, but in everyday life.  Westfeldt’s film is no different but follows it in typical movie fashion.  Act one begins with an introduction to the problem, everyone Jason and Julie know with children are miserable—at least as far as they can see.  But the act concludes with Jason answering the more metaphorical call to fill the hole he and his best friend have been yearning to fill for some time—having a child.  It was actually his idea, as she was the safe choice—being just like him, afraid of castration through commitment.  The second act begins or peaks somewhere around the time where Julie shares her new feelings with Jason who is too blind, like Jeff in Rear Window, to see what is right in front of him.  It isn’t until he has lost everything and in real danger of being alone when he realizes he has to have her.  The third act begins with her moving on and ends with his eventual return into the family fold, truly conforming through his desire to be with her in Brooklyn, like all the other washed up “unhappy” couples.
In this movie Jason and Julie’s dragons are their inability to let go of their over analytical modern dispositions and see the path to love and happiness that have always been in front of them.  A beautiful one at that—a best friend and child.  They tried to fill the hole with all the things that the modern world convinces you to drown yourself with—but stuff and lust fell short and left them thirsty for more.  This is best illustrated through Jason’s constant need to validate himself through new female conquests, especially the self-centered Mary Jane, played perfectly by Megan Fox.  I think that it was only natural for Julie’s dragon to be slayed first, as she actually pushed out the baby.  Maybe there is something in that immense physical pain that brings clarity to life, especially when you realize what you need most is a companion and who better than your best friend and father of your child.
So I’ve rambled on about dragons, but what I liked most about this film is that it really was brave.  It throws our stupid egos in our stupid modern faces.  I thought it was awesome to see Hitchcock doing the same thing many years before and am glad to see Westfeldt reminding us now.  It’s a great spanking there for anyone aware and able to feel it.  I also loved seeing Jon Hamm in a role where the typical handsome guy who seems to have it all gets humbled.  There are all kinds of cues to set the cocky straight.  Jennifer Westfeldt is a crafty film maker.  She reminds me very much of Rodrigo Garcia and Richard Linklater because they take subject matter that seems to torture them and hash it out in realistic conversational dramas on screen; they challenge the observer rather than stroke them.  Westfeldt’s dramas center on relationships and she gives you three different types and resolves them with courage.
It all ends up relatively happy if you’re willing to see it that way.  Even Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig end up in a much better situation, apart.  They were the type that fell in lust and ended up with kids—never meant to be together.  Maya Rudolph and Chris O’Dowd represent a more classic relationship, like those Stella talks about in Rear Window.  They are two that liked each other and work at things to stay together.  Julie and Jason are those rare occurrences, best friends made lovers, who really are meant to be.  If they’re wise enough, if they’re strong enough, they can get through all the trials and make it.  So I think this film illustrates how happy endings can be brave.  In a way, movies like this are instructional videos teaching us how to be happy.  Another one like this, in my opinion, is Jeff, Who Lives at Home.  They are silly at times, but realistic.  Yea, there are a bunch of shitty situations along the way and in the end everyone gets the shaft, I mean, we all die.  But if you choose to invest in happiness, if you choose to put the time in to hone in on it and strive to make things happy—we can all find our happy endings.  It reminds me of a Dalai Lama quote I read recently, "Every one of us is getting older, which is a natural process. Time is constantly moving on, second by second. Nothing can stop it, but what we can do is use our time properly; that is in our hands. Whether we believe in a spiritual tradition or not, we need to use our time meaningfully. If over days, weeks and years, we have used our time in a meaningful way - when our last day comes, we'll be happy, we'll have no regrets."
I think it is easy to just end a movie with ugly and plain “realities”.  It is more difficult to find the good things and write them in a way that translates well on screen.  I think Westfeldt does this in Friends with Kids.  She takes clich├ęs and turns them on their head—she does the same with Ira & Abby where the typical lovers are portrayed as neurotic fuck ups and the climax being a group therapy sessions with generations of fuck ups and just decide to cope.  Friends with Kids uses real comedy and when you get to that big pay off, where Jason finally catches up and slays his dragon, it ends.  They don’t complete the hero’s journey by coming full circle, that retelling is the movie itself—the writer/director is the true hero of this journey.  There is no montage showing them moving in together, leading to a wedding with voice over giving the audience closure through summed up life lessons.  It jars the modern ego, abruptly cutting, BAM, you’re wrong.  We are no longer nihilistic individuals striving to be unique, no—now we are able to see the beauty in conformity.