Friends With Kids is a rough approximation of what might have happened had Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan decided to have a kid at the end of their car trip to New York City at the beginning of When Harry Met Sally. OK, so Harry and Sally aren't quite friends at the end of their cross-country sojourn, but the point is that they become very close in a Platonic way, a lot like Julie Keller and Jason Fryman are at the very beginning of Friends With Kids.
Invoking part of the unofficial romantic comedy canon is not intended as a slight or an insult to Jennifer Westfeldt, who wrote, directed and starred as Julie in the film, by the way, and I'm not accusing her of being derivative either. When Harry Met Sally, for all its greatness, feels a bit quaint when you watch it in 2012, so there's something to be said for tugging on the string of those archetypes and pulling them into the 21st century.
Like Harry and Sally, Julie and Jason, played by Adam Scott, share late-night phone calls and witty banter and despite all that there is virtually no sexual attraction between them. They see their circle of friends pairing off and having kids and decide they want in on that life experience, only without the complications of having to balance a romantic relationship with child-rearing -- a difficulty that they see first-hand in the struggles of their friends Ben and Missy, played by Jon Hamm and Kristen Wiig, and Alex and Leslie, played by Chris O'Dowd and Maya Rudolph.
So Julie and Jason agree to conceive a child and then split everything "down the middle, 50/50," so that they can go on looking for their respective soulmates without the added pressure of starting a family. This is a far-fetched and absurd premise, but not as absurd as it might have been when When Harry Met Sally came out, as the movie takes great pains to point out. The conventional family unit is changing, you see. You may have heard a thing or two about it over the past five years.
Anyway, everything is going swimmingly for Julie and Jason; they both manage to find time for new flames as they raise their son, Joe -- Jason becoming entangled with Mary Jane, played by the fetching Megan Fox, and Julie getting involved with the recently divorced Kurt, played by Edward Burns. Until, of course, it isn't going swimmingly. When both Ben and Kurt challenge the amount of thought that went in to Julie and Jason's arrangement during a New Year's Eve ski trip, Jason leaps to their defense and unwittingly says just enough to get Julie to realize that she's in love with him and not Kurt. (Does Edward Burns ever play anyone besides a stiff second choice in rom coms?)
This sets off a sadly predictable chain of events where Julie and Jason can never quite get on the same romantic page until, of course, the latter puts forth a grand gesture, parks his car sideways in the road in Brooklyn and delivers that win-her-over speech that I believe romantic comedies are now Constitutionally required to include.
It's too bad, because Friends With Kids actually had quite a bit to say about raising children, the complexity of adult relationships and the increasing lack of maturity with which twentysomethings and even thirtysomethings -- even of the well-to-do Manhattanite variety -- approach such life-altering decisions as having children.
Westfeldt is immensely talented -- that much is clear. Her writing had me laughing out loud routinely during the first two-thirds of the movie, she picked a great ensemble cast with which to work (Scott and O'Dowd were both particularly terrific) and she was convincing in the lead role. But I wish she had gone in a different direction at the very end.
Ultimately, Julie and Jason were foolish for making a major life decision with such utter frivolity, and yet it feels like they were barely punished for such hubris. Friends With Kids is worth your time to be sure, but it would have been more powerful (and more worth your time) had it not let the leading pair off the hook so easily.