Title: Baby Mama
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Play time: 1h 39min
Director: Michael McCullers
Screenwriters: Michael McCullers
Starring:  Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sigourney Weaver

You can almost feel Baby Mama wanting to break out into ebullient anarchy. It certainly makes some very funny feints in that direction; indeed, its best moments come when it offers a complete non sequitur for a joke, or indulges a hilariously unlikely running gag. But every time the movie feels like it’s about to cross over into the realm of the genuinely inspired, something or someone slams on the brakes. Baby Mama is a comedy that could have been something special if it hadn’t been reined in at every turn.

The film still provides a steady stream of moderate chuckles — and how could it not? It stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, surely two of the funniest women (or, really, people) in the business. Fey plays Kate Holbrook, an ambitious professional who had foregone a family but, at the age of 37, has decided that, damn it, she wants a baby. After her doctor deadpans “I just don’t like your uterus,” and after the adoption agency tells her where she can shove her newfound motherly instincts, she turns to a surrogacy entrepreneur (Sigourney Weaver) to have someone else’s uterus implanted with her offspring. That someone else turns out to be Angie (Poehler), an ostentatiously “white trash” deadbeat who could really, really use the money.

Anyone who watches Saturday Night Live and its weekly “Weekend Update” sketch already knows that Poehler and Fey are a fantastic pairing. They have a different dynamic here, but it doesn’t matter: Fey’s witty straight-woman incredulity plays perfectly against Poehler’s showier character work. Kate and Angie’s relationship — moving from glee to mutual frustration to endearment to rage and finally to BFF-ism — is sweet, and their interactions tend to be at least mildly amusing, at least for a while (I loved Fey’s aggressively strategic attempt at Karaoke Revolution).

At the same time, the businesswoman-and-hick-are-forced-to-live-together plot is pretty generic buddy comedy stuff. There are laughs but no surprises, and the material never transcends the level of a good sitcom. The only time the movie flirts with inspiration is when it goes off on tangents or delves briefly into side plots. Sigourney Weaver’s unusually fertile surrogacy honcho Chaffee Bicknell (“I didn’t realize ‘Chaffee Bicknell’ was one person”), for example, has hints of genius. When, in the middle of a pained conversation about Kate’s rapidly unveiling plans to secure a surrogate pregnancy, she announces that her baby is kicking, I nearly lost it. Steve Martin is pretty brilliant as Kate’s hippie boss; listen for his hilarious idea of what constitutes an appropriate reward for a job well done. And there’s one completely nonsensical joke involving writing things on a notepad in the middle of the night that had me in stitches.

Moments like that made me want to cheer Baby Mama on, will it to build momentum. But every time the film seems to get going, it pulls back. Mostly, it reverts to obsessing over any one of its fairly trite, inoffensive, increasingly contrived storylines. The rushed Fey-Greg Kinnear romance is particularly unfortunate, existing solely to set up a late-film plot twist you’d have to be asleep not to see coming. But even the main relationship starts to wear thin, especially once we realize that the good stuff is mostly elsewhere.

The ending is sappy and bland, making clear that Baby Mama is, above all, a missed opportunity. I went into the film with the impression that, like the considerably stronger Mean Girls, it too was written by Tina Fey herself. It quickly became obvious that, aside from the intermittent flashes of wit, this couldn’t be right (the movie was in fact written and directed by SNL vet Michael McCullers). This is passable stuff, but Fey has made better films, and will again.

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