Pregnancy and childbirth are nothing new. In fact, there are few things less new than humans reproducing. It’s been done before. But Kirk Jones’ What to Expect When You’re Expecting accurately captures the inherent selfishness of expecting parents,and their individual “journeys” to the delivery room (and beyond). Unfortunately, even when gifted with a large, mostly eager cast, Jones is also saddled with a script from Shauna Cross and Heather Hach (working off of Heidi Murkoff‘s guidebook of the same name) that is deeply uninterested in providing much variety in their work. The effect is simple one – the film itself is deeply uninteresting. While What to Expect continually reminds its viewers that pregnancy and childbirth are miracles, unique and thrilling gifts, Cross and Hach have concocted one of the most bland, basic, and unadventurous scripts in recent memory.
Like Garry Marshall’s rancid multi-story romantic comedies, Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, the film focuses on a group of loosely interconnected couples and their struggles with pregnancy. Like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, some of those connections are tenuous, and the film is content with tying people together in laughable ways – they walk by each other! they see each other on the TV! they all have their babies in the same hospital on the same night! – it’s not clever, but it’s certainly not offensive. (Of note: anyone attempting to make a film like Marshall’s crapfests or What to Expect need look no further than Love, Actually, which works the gimmick to graceful and delightful effect).
The film focuses on a variety of couples (if by “variety” you mean “well-off and overwhelmingly white”) who are all facing pregnancies (and, in one case, an adoption) that come packaged up with different issues. Elizabeth Banks‘ Wendy and Ben Falcone‘s Gary are the ostensible stars of the film – a couple eager to conceive (Wendy is a children’s book author who also owns her own pregnancy shop), Wendy and Ben are baffled when their pregnancy ends up being difficult and without the supposed “glow” that they’ve been told is inevitable. Ben’s father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid, in a rare asshole role), is also expecting with his young trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), and Ramsey’s competitive spirit (read: he’s a total dick) and Skyler’s overwhelmingly easy pregnancy are not making this a joyous time for his own eldest child. There’s also Cameron Diaz‘s Jules (a reality TV personal trainer who stars on a rip-off of The Biggest Loser) and her boyfriend Evan (Matthew Morrison), who she met on another reality TV rip-off, this one a spin on Dancing With the Stars. Jules and Evan can’t agree on anything, which doesn’t really matter in the context of the film, as their story is the weakest and least enjoyable. There’s also Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro, a married couple looking to adopt despite potential financial issues (hint: they get solved), and on the opposite end of that spectrum, Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford as rival food truck chefs who get knocked up after one night of passion.
With so many characters and so many plots, What to Expect practices the spaghetti method of entertaining: throw enough noodles at the screen, and something will stick. There’s guaranteed to be at least one plotline, at least one couple that speaks to audiences, a neat trick that keeps the entire thing from being one giant old bust. If this film was just about Lopez and Santoro’s characters, or Diaz and Morrison’s plotline, it would be a bust, but its episodic nature routinely rescues us from getting stuck with bland characters and boring plots. Hell, with such a large cast, there’s even a few performances that deserve some recognition – like Banks and Falcone who walk the fine line between comedy and drama, Kendrick and Crawford who could just as well top-line their own rom-com feature about their relationship, and the irrepressible Rebel Wilson, who continually tosses off insane one-liners that inject the film with its most hearty laughs.
But despite its large cast of characters, What to Expect is primarily interested in pregnancies that come about the old-fashioned way (save, of course, that one adoption plotline). Despite a few stray mentions of failed IVF, the film is overwhelmingly traditional and staggeringly narrow-minded. No one conceives by way of IVF. No ones uses a surrogate. No couple considers adopting or fostering an older child. There are no gay couples. There are no single parents. There is no discussion over birth defects or prenatal testing. What to Expect could have been made in thirty years ago (and that’s not to imply that the film is somehow timeless). What to Expect occasionally hits on some honesty, however, such as the inevitable “pregnancy is bullshit” breakdown from one of the female leads, an unexpectedly emotional twist to one couple’s journey, and some real talk from the Dudes’ Group (who are funny but completely unessential to the film). The rest of it, though, is just pure fluff.
The Upside: A smattering of proficient and compelling performances, a few genuine laughs, unexpected moments of honesty, audiences are guaranteed to connect with at least one couple or storyline.
The Downside: An overwhelmingly simple and sanitized view of “modern” love and childbirth, What to Expect When You’re Expecting is too easy and breezy, devoid of emotion or originality. At best, it’s inoffensive fluff. At worst, it’s narrow-minded twaddle.
On the Side: “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is now in its fourth edition and was first published in 1984. Interestingly enough, co-author Murkoff has no medical training, which has not stopped her from focusing her book on worst-case scenarios and dietary recommendations.