REVIEW: What to Expect From What to Expect When You're Expecting? A Bunch of Barren Gags

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Hollywood, a humble request? I realize that abortion is has become too divisive a topic these days to drop into a mainstream movie product like What To Expect When You're Expecting, especially in what's an overall innocuous ensemble comedy based, somehow, on a bestselling pregnancy guidebook (between this and Battleship, it's one strange week for source material). It's also a tough topic from which to wring laughs. And in something carefully calculated to be as broad in appeal as possible, any mention of the option of terminating a pregnancy is just going to be one more thing that could isolate potential movie audiences, like an ugly poster, being in a foreign language or attempting analysis of the Iraq War.

But when you have a young female character who gets pregnant, who's not in a stable relationship and who's in an economically tenuous position, can't you slip in some mention of why she wouldn't consider the A-word? Religion, personal conviction, future fertility concerns due to some inherited condition, story revealed to be actually taking place in an alternate universe in which Roe v. Wade has been overturned and women are given no choice but to have Chace Crawford's impeccably handsome babies? Just something to save her from looking nuts, which is the case for Rosie (Anna Kendrick), a 23-year-old food truck worker (guessing that doesn't come with health insurance) who lives with two roommates and ends up with a little surprise after a spontaneous hookup with former high school classmate and fellow foodie Marco (Crawford). Naturally, those crazy kids decide to stick it out, and things briefly bumble along in Knocked Up-lite fashion until Rosie loses the baby.

She has the misfortune of being stuck with What to Expect When You're Expecting's miscarriage storyline — the other three Atlanta-based and one Los Angeles-located couples in the Kirk Jones-directed film each shoulder a different first-time child-bearing experience, from a post-35 pregnancy (Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison) to twins (Dennis Quaid and Brooklyn Decker) to adoption (Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro) to a physically taxing gestation (Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone). Also checked off the list are issues of whether or not to circumcise, of money, of breastfeeding, of fertility, of balancing work and of being a good father. It's a lot to fit into one film, and some of these themes, particularly in the case of Rosie and Marco's thread, get such short shrift that Jones might have done better to leave them by the wayside — it's hard to have a serious contemplation of post-miscarriage depression slotted in next to a gag about how pregnancy gives you cankles.

It's not impossible to make an engaging film out of an advice tome — Think Like a Man managed to be lively and funny, because its characters emerged as more than just vehicles for its source book's ideas. That doesn't happen here, though the ensemble is at least notably odd in its spread of professions, which include a breast-milk advocate, an aquarium and baby photographer, the aforementioned food truckers, a NASCAR driver and the host of a Biggest Loser-style weight-loss show. The variety seems there to make up for the fact that in other ways, the film's showing a fairly narrow range of childbearing experiences — these are all straight, working couples in the middle- to upper-class range. It's only in Lopez's story that the economic crunch of preparing for a child is mentioned, and even then it's an issue of having to keep living in a fab apartment rather than moving into an even more fab house.

What to Expect When You're Expecting  centers on the belief that having children is the only way to know real fulfillment in life. "When I was young, I thought I was so happy. Now I know that I'm happy," says Chris Rock, the leader of a weekly gathering of dads who walk around the park enjoying their no-judgment zone. This leads to moments in which the film touches on fears of feminine inadequacy that it doesn't have the space or depth to process — Banks's character being so sure she'd have that "glow" and instead finding herself waddling, gassy and miserable; Lopez getting drunk and crying about how she isn't able to do "the one thing a woman is supposed to do." The cheerily childless out there don't get any screen time, not just because this is a film about having kids but because they wouldn't fit into the overall worldview, which is that you haven't lived until you've spawned, or, barring that, snagged a cute infant from Ethiopia.

In the realms of pregnancy comedy, What to Expect When You're Expecting doesn't find new laughs, just layers on attempts at the tried-and-true ones — think one scene in which a woman howls and makes funny faces during labor is funny? How about many of them together? Its sharpest segment is the opening, in which we see Diaz's celebrity trainer compete on Morrison's dance show, writhing through ridiculous choreography next to fellow contestants Whitney Port and Dwyane Wade. The film's skewering of reality show competitions is far more surefooted than any of its celebrations of the joys of parenting, which seem, despite the specificity of the manual that inspired it, more theoretical than sincere.

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