Pregnancy is one of those safe topics of comedy films in that the target audience – women – can sympathize and the rest of the audience – men – can empathize. After all, everyone knows someone who is pregnant, trying to get pregnant or was pregnant and can describe each excruciating moment with exquisite detail. Furthermore, the topic of pregnancy is so expansive and the journey through it is so tortuous that finding hilarious truths should be simple, making What to Expect When You’re Expecting a slam dunk. Instead, this film tries to do too much, watering down its comedic potential.
What to Expect When You’re Expecting follows the pregnancies of five couples in different stages of their lives. There’s the young couple with the accidental pregnancy (Anna Kendrick and Chase Crawford), the older celebrity couple with the accidental pregnancy (Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison), the even older couple (Brooklyn Decker and Dennis Quaid), the couple that’s been trying forever to get pregnant (Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone), and, finally, the couple that’s given up on pregnancy and has opted for adoption (Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro). All together, their stories run the gamut of pregnancy experiences, including fears, joys and the myriad decisions expecting parents have to make regarding their first child.
On its face this film should be for both male and female audiences, since pregnancy does not happen in a vacuum. Watching the movie, however, gives one the sense that men were abandoned as a target audience early on. What to Expect is like most venerable “chick flicks”, full of unnatural actions, like an expecting mother who smashes a cell phone to protect her baby from radiation, and stilted dialogue, like: “I’m trying to do the right thing.” “Then don’t ask the wrong questions!” Furthermore, the men in the film are caricatures instead of characters. Consider the “dudes” support group led by Chris Rock and composed of fathers walking their infants around the park. They’re presented as buffoons who drop their babies off changing tables, find them swimming in the toilet or allow them to injure themselves over and over again. When they’re single friend Davis (Joe Manganiello) comes by, the Dudes live vicariously through him as he recounts his sexual exploits as a free man, but then later genuinely announce how much they love being fathers. One goes so far as to say, “I love my baby so much I worry I might eat him.” Male-centric movies typically feature normal characters in absurd situations. In this film, it’s the reverse.
One of the challenges of the film is that the story is spread over too many characters, and it isn’t focused. Ben Falcone’s character has unresolved issues with his father that the film devotes precious screen time to dissect, but to what end? Is that the story the film is trying to tell? The film also clutters the minds of audiences with unnecessary elements, like all of the different backgrounds for each character. Diaz is a celebrity personal trainer. Morrison is a celebrity dancer. Quaid is an ex-NASCAR driver. Santoro is in advertising. Kendrick and Crawford are food truck proprietors. Taken alone, each background is pleasant character foundation. Taken together, all of the information is needlessly taxing. Furthermore, since five groups are fighting over a fixed running time of 110 minutes, the characters are limited to doing and saying only what is necessary to move the plot along. There’s little to elicit sympathy beyond basic human decency. So when one mother has a life-threatening pregnancy, don’t expect to have any She’s Having a Baby (1988) reactions.
Thankfully, all is not lost. There are many truths about the pregnancy experience that everyone will appreciate. Having so many characters allows the film to explore the many variations of child birth, like the perfect and painless ones to the screaming, face-slapping, hand-crushing kinds. There are also genuinely funny moments and characters, like Rebel Wilson as Elizabeth Banks’ shop assistant. Wilson’s comedic timing and choices are some of the few bright moments in the film.
It would have been nice if the story focused more on one couple who absorbed the other couples’ stories. Then audiences could really take the journey – both physical and emotional – with the characters. That doesn’t happen, of course, and audiences are left with something mostly only intellectually comedic. It’s a shame that What to Expect When You’re Expecting is so overwritten, because there’s a lot of content here that so many people can relate to.