Fey and Co. work magic on mundane Baby Mama

by Glen Baity

Even if they had an infinite amount of time to work on it, a million monkeys typing on a million typewriters couldn’t come up with a more 10-minutes-ago name for a comedy than Baby Mama.

Who knows when it formally entered the lexicon, but “baby mama” has lived its entire life as an annoying – though unassailably precise – turn of phrase to describe a person you continue to know only because of her relationship to your children.

Like all the worst forms of slang, it’s both extremely dumb and just a little bit sad.

It’s surprising, then, that writer-director Michael McCullers’ film is actually pretty fun, a briskly-paced maternity comedy with a great cast and acceptable doses of sap. Baby Mama chronicles the struggle of 37-year-old corporate climber Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) and her unfortunately T-shaped uterus.

Kate wants a baby, but the odds are stacked deeply against her, according to her uncomfortably blunt gynecologist (John Hodgeman). Sensing that her longed-for mommyhood is slipping away, she seeks out a surrogate mother in Angie (Amy Poehler), a Dr. Pepper-addicted scam artist with bleached-blond hair and a common-law husband.

Films that center around a pregnancy necessarily unfold in pretty much the same way: At some point near the beginning, there’s the conception, and it follows the characters for nine months, usually closing with one or more smiling people cradling what is quite obviously not a newborn.

If anyone ever reinvents this genre, they’ll have to reshape basic human biology in the process. The only way to really do it well is to squeeze in as much comedy around the hormonally-heightened emotions as possible. Last year’s Knocked Up scored a lot of belly laughs before the big delivery, and Baby Mama is probably just as funny thanks to competent writing and a cast that knows its way around a joke.

Poehler’s fundamentally sweet hustler gets most of the good punchlines, though McCullers writes her as either a nitwit or a sly genius, depending on what the scene requires. She’s shared ample screen time previously with fellow “SNL” alum Fey, and it shows in their chemistry here. The two women forge a cautious sisterhood that is threatened when the fertility treatment fails, after which Angie and her husband hatch a scheme to get the most out of their white-collar meal ticket.

Tagging along are Steve Martin as Kate’s pony-tailed, space cadet of a boss; Sigourney Weaver as the preternaturally fertile head of the surrogacy service; and Greg Kinnear as Kate’s budding love interest.

These are all pretty gifted comic actors, and McCullers’ script gives them plenty of opportunities to play off one another. But it falters in the realism department. For instance: There are some major class issues Baby Mama either glosses over or plays for laughs, and while that might not be such a huge deal in another comedy, reality has a way of encroaching on these pregnancy stories. When Kate calls Angie “white trash” and never really apologizes for it, you’ll notice, and you probably won’t brush it off as easily as the characters do.

It’s an ugly moment that throws a spotlight on the broad-brush character types here, from Fey’s controlling career woman on down. All these actors are so accomplished at what they do, and so likeable onscreen, it’s easy to ignore the fact that their characters barely rise above well-worn stereotypes.

But you shouldn’t underestimate what a good performer can do with a bland role and some punchy one-liners, and until revealing moments like the one above, Baby Mama is a perfectly likeable confection. Unlike other films of the genre (like Nine Months, which seems to go on for… well, about nine months), it’s a quick visit that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s not the best diaper comedy around, but there’s a lot to enjoy in Baby Mama if you can look past its dopey title.

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