Baby Mama would have been a lot better if its two lead actresses had written it. The film is a pregnancy-slash-female buddy comedy that stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, probably the two biggest female comedy stars of the moment, and two of the best comic actresses of this or any other generation. Fey was the first woman head writer of Saturday Night Live, and together she and Poehler co-anchored the best "Weekend Update" sketches in the show's recent history. Fey’s writing is some of the sharpest satire out there right now, Poehler is an electric comic performer, and their chemistry onscreen is undeniable. If only the material were up to their talents.
The film is both exactly the same and entirely different than one might expect after being inundated by the film’s ad campaign. Fey plays a single career woman who decides to stop waiting for Mr. Right and have a child on her own. But when she discovers she has a “million-to-one shot” at getting pregnant, she decides to employ a surrogate to carry her child. Enter Poehler, who was raised as a rowdy South Philly girl and is in a bad relationship with a redneck boyfriend (Dax Shepard, who manages to be funny despite the film’s best efforts to undercut his comic timing). The film’s story tracks Fey and Poehler’s relationship throughout the pregnancy, as the stakes are raised when Poehler’s character moves in with Fey…mayhem ensues, etc. Without giving anything away, there are several different plot elements that throw the characters in unexpected directions, and while the filmmakers should be credited for making a clear effort to be quirky and surprising, the twists all feel forced…and what’s worse, unfunny.
Baby Mama was written and directed by veteran SNL writer Michael McCullers, who is taking his first shot as standalone screenwriter, and he clearly can’t reach beyond the simplicity of one-note sketches. McCullers helped write some pretty funny goofball films in the past, from Austin Powers to the still-undervalued Undercover Brother. But when trying to tell an engaging comedic story, McCullers can’t seem to rise above the standard pratfalls. Baby Mama suffers from the sorts of gags that would work in an Austin Powers film: lame pot shots, sight gags, and uncomfortable silences that are supposed to be funny but stop at just uncomfortable. It works for silly satires because they are essentially extended sketches, but Baby Mama is in a different stratosphere.
What is strange is that since this film is clearly designed as a vehicle for Fey and Poehler, why didn’t McCullers let them mangle his level-one script into something biting and poignant? Even as it is, I credit the film’s few laughs to the obvious input of its talented female leads—as well as to the ever-brilliant Steve Martin, who has plenty of experience being better than the material, and gets every last chuckle out of his small supporting role.
Baby Mama's premise might seem generic at first glance, but it is actually an interesting concept for a strong comedy. In Fey's hands, the material could have soared. But in an actress-only role, there is only so much she and Poehler can do to keep the film from drifting into lame comedy oblivion, where it inevitably and unfortunately lands.