Sunday, November 16, 2008


I had high hopes for Baby Mama that it might be an unsung sleeper during its opening thirty minutes, which sets up the premise of Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey), a professionally successful, personally empty 37-year-old woman so in the throes of baby fever that she hires the lower-class Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) to have a child for her. The set-up is brisk and amusing, with unusually careful attention paid to distributing laughs among the game supporting cast: Steve Martin as Kate's wealthy aging hippie boss; Sigourney Weaver as the improbably still-conceiving head of the surrogate agency; Maura Tierney as Kate's grounded older sister; Romany Malco as the doorman to her apartment complex; Dax Shepard seemingly doing a riff on Jeremy Sisto's tiresome white-trash hubbie from Waitress. Granted, Greg Kinnear shows up as the obligatory love interest, but you can't have everything.

It's not Kinnear's fault (though his flaccid presence doesn't help) that all the threads in Baby Mama unspool precisely at the moment they should tighten -- when Angie and Kate become roommates. From their early Saturday Night Live days to the classic sketch during our recent presidential campaign featuring Poehler as a deadpan, eye-blinking Katie Couric and Fey as John McCain's low-key, media-shy running mate, the pair have always had great chemistry. But writer-director Michael McCullers makes the same mistake as countless other contemporary filmmakers by substituting the farce with sappiness. The leads can't get a rhythm going, the primed ensemble is left stranded rather than brought into the plot, and the air goes out of the movie. It's easy to forgive amateurish direction and staging if a comedy will just be funny.

Thank goodness Fey's 30 Rock seems to be righting itelf. In my pan of the season premiere, I voiced concern that the show's edge had been dulled. Two episodes later and I'm somewhat more relieved. Last week's made more clever use of Oprah Winfrey than I would have imagined possible. This week's was a more scattershot affair, featuring Jennifer Aniston as Liz's visiting sex-crazed pal. (How or why they would be buddies in the first place is left unsaid.) There was the occasional episode of Friends that hinted Aniston's knack for screwball comedy -- donning a cheerleader outfit in one episode (long story), making a giddily drunken phone call in another. About all Aniston brings to the table these days is tabloid baggage: I haven't seen her in anything in years, yet I'm tired of looking at her. She's energetic doing what looks like a roundabout send-up of Angelina Jolie's craziness, but her spirit is heavy. (Not to rub salt in the wound, but Jolie also happens to be a good actress; Aniston is not.)

Nevertheless, I laughed a lot, thanks mainly to the "B" plot involving the efforts of Kenneth (Jack McBrayer) to reunite the cast of Night Court for the finale wedding that never was. As a kid I was a big fan of Night Court, one of those shows that didn't have a lot of depth or meaning (when it tried, it fell flat) but was nearly always pretty funny. Despite the unexplained absence of John Larroquette, Marsha Warfield and Richard Moll, it was fun to see Harry Anderson, Markie Post and Charles Robinson and all the meta references to the series, particularly when an exasperated Anderson says, "Markie, will you do me the honor of being my fake wife so we can get our money and get the hell out of here?" She gushes, "I've waited fifteen years to hear you say those words!" That's the kind of sentiment good comedy needs.

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