(by Dustin Putman
"What to Expect When You're Expecting" piggybacks on the popularity of Heidi Murkoff's pregnancy Bible of the same name. With over 14.5 million copies in print, it's a consistent bestseller, a book that everyone has heard of and that this film borrows little more from outside of the general topic of having a baby. The sheer name recognition is a savvy marketing hook, to be sure, and it may need it; viewed as its own separate entity, the movie—one of those all-star ensemble pieces full of interwoven storylines, previously perfected by Robert Altman (1975's "Nashville") and squandered by Garry Marshall (2010's "Valentine's Day")—never, or rarely, breaks the surface of its pawn-like characters and their plodding trajectories toward parenthood. Instead of making a vivid microcosm of the rainbow of experiences expectant women (and men) go through, director Kirk Jones (2009's "Everybody's Fine") and screenwriters Shauna Cross (2009's "Whip It") and Heather Hach (2003's "Freaky Friday") mechanically hit all the manipulative beats and tropes one anticipates while failing to breathe much dimension into the actors vying for screen time. Article continues below
Set primarily in the bustling cultural mecca that is Atlanta, a handful of women—some of them connected, some of them perfect strangers—are about to discover the happy surprises and unforeseen pitfalls of welcoming a bundle of joy into their respective families. Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is a photographer who has decided to adopt an Ethiopian baby with husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) after years of failed fertility treatments. In the months leading up to the big day, job instability, money woes, and Alex's fear that he won't be a good enough father put a wrench in their unorthodox journey toward becoming parents. For baby store owner and new children's author Wendy Cooper (Elizabeth Banks), becoming pregnant is supposed to be the best experience of her life, just as she's always fantasized. Instead, she is stricken with morning sickness, an achy back, swollen ankles, and radical mood swings, leaving her praying for the day when she can get the baby out of her. The exact opposite befalls Skyler (Brooklyn Decker)—the much-younger wife of retired race car driver Ramsey Cooper (Dennis Quaid), father to Wendy's hubby Gary (Ben Falcone)—whose pregnancy with twins has had all the ease of a light sneeze. With every look at Skyler, Wendy is constantly reminded of the glowing dream pregnancy she wanted for herself. Then there's twenty-something Rosie (Anna Kendrick), leading a perfectly happy single life until a one-night fling with her handsome food truck competitor Marco (Chace Crawford) leads to an unplanned bun in the oven. All of the above are fans of fitness guru and current "Celebrity Dance Factor" winner Jules Baxter (Cameron Diaz), herself going through a very public pregnancy with dance partner/new boyfriend Evan (Matthew Morrison).
Criss-crossing between humor and pathos, "What to Expect When You're Expecting" wishes to be a slice-of-life, but the lives on display read more like Cliffs Notes of human beings rather than full-bodied characters, their every appearance chained to the plot in question. With the possible exception of Wendy, whose type-A existence is set into a tailspin when her pregnancy goes the way of a disaster movie, the other female protagonists are all so blandly written that they seem to share a single personality. Yes, they have different professions and looks and minimally different story angles, but they all talk and carry themselves with the same generically pleasant and forgettable persona. The men, meanwhile, are virtually in the same boat, except they are called upon to support their ladies in good times and bad while quietly having their own doubts. When Alex hits the park to bond with a group of daddies led by Chris Rock's Vic, it's the beginning of a worthless ongoing subplot that goes nowhere, offers no insight beyond Hallmark chestnuts, and lazily uses a resourceful, if clumsy, toddler who keeps falling down and getting hit in the head as the source for terribly unfunny slapstick.
As one might imagine, not every path to babydom goes off without a hitch. One character has a miscarriage, while another nearly dies during childbirth. There are the typical temporary falling-outs between partners, the dreaded bedrest rears its ugly head, and there are the gags during labor involving the mind-altering delights of anesthesia. All of this is fairly standard stuff, but the film is not without its moments. Elizabeth Banks (2012's "The Hunger Games") is the standout of the leads, getting to let (and hang) loose when her fed-up demeanor leads to a very funny rant at a baby expo that makes her an Internet sensation and something of a sounding board for mothers who don't believe pregnancy is all it's cracked up to be. The competitive father-son relationship between Ramsey and Gary leads to a welcome shot of levity when Skyler, until this point presented to be a rather daft young woman, demands that her husband make amends for the family strife he's caused. Brooklyn Decker (2011's "Just Go with It") is a sneaky delight as Skyler, smarter than she appears and milking her "mother" role to the decade-older Gary for all its worth. Of the side parts, Rebel Wilson (2011's "Bridesmaids") gets a number of laughs as Wendy's faithful store assistant, while Megan Mullally (2009's "Fame"), playing a predatory version of herself as Evan's latest partner on "Celebrity Dance Factor," steals her scenes in a wry extended cameo. As for Cameron Diaz (2011's "Bad Teacher") and Jennifer Lopez (2010's "The Back-Up Plan"), arguably the movie's biggest stars, they are just fine but left untested by their middle-of-the-road roles. Anna Kendrick (2011's "50/50") is actually a brighter presence as Rosie, but, by not bothering to fully explore her conflict, her storyline burns itself out by the halfway point.
"What to Expect When You're Expecting" is exactly what most audiences will be expecting. It's safe, obvious, kind of vanilla, has more music montages than a person can shake a stick at, and ends in a foregone conclusion. The suggestion, however, that a person's life is only meaningful if they breed is one that comes off as careless and disrespectful, director Kirk Jones overlooking the countless other successes one can have that are not measured by procreation. Furthermore, isn't it a valiant right for certain people to admit to themselves they're not interested in having children rather than frivolously and unnecessarily bringing new life into the world? The film has no time for such an option because it's too deep in elitist baby fever. As such, the picture is rarely awful or very good, but stuck on a mediocre plane that extends to its mostly ineffectual dramatic content. The best that can be said about "What to Expect When You're Expecting" is that it's an agreeable way to spend 110 minutes - preferably at home on a rainy day, with expectations appropriately tempered to "eh."