Lower your expectations

Pregnancy comedy more labour than laughs

There’s a fundamental tension at the heart of What to Expect When You’re Expecting a film ostensibly based on the so-called “pregnancy bible” of the same name. How do you make an uplifting comedy about an experience that’s often portrayed as serene and beautiful but can actually be stressful and ugly?

The strategy here appears to be the following: talk about the downside of pregnancy but try not to show it. This approach is reflected in the climax where author and expecting mother Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) tears into the popular conceptions about pregnancy at a reading. The reality she rages to her audience consists of “cankles” out-of-control hormones and hemorrhoids.

That may well be but most women would probably be happy to have a body like Wendy’s nine months in and as for hormones a single cathartic meltdown seems pretty mild. Wendy’s rhetoric is supposed to be bracing but it belies the fact the film largely puts the same Madonna-like shine on pregnancy that she rails against. And while there may be a case for sacrificing realism for the sake of laughs What to Expect largely fails on this front as well.

Admittedly adapting a non-fiction book — with no storyline — for the screen would have challenged the best writers but it’s pretty clear they weren’t at work here. Otherwise scribes Shauna Cross and Heather Hach wouldn’t have featured the loosely connected stories of five Atlanta women and their respective husbands/boyfriends/one-night stands when the film would have struggled to support just one storyline.

The women in question besides Wendy include Jules (Cameron Diaz) a weight-loss challenge TV show host pregnant by Evan (Matthew Morrison) her former partner on a celebrity dance show; Holly (Jennifer Lopez) an infertile photographer adopting a baby from Ethiopia with her husband Alex (Rodrigo Santoro); Rosie (Anna Kendrick) a food-truck worker whose hook-up with rival vendor and old high school boyfriend Marco (Chace Crawford) has predictable consequences; and Skyler (Brooklyn Decker) a blond bimbo carrying the child of husband Ramsey (Dennis Quaid) father of Wendy’s husband Gary (Ben Falcone).

Given the film’s constant switching between these various characters none of them really come into their own although some still make a faint impression. Lopez’s sorrow over her inability to do “the one thing a woman is expected to do” as she puts it is credible and Kendrick is convincing as a young woman who twice gets an unpleasant surprise. The huge ensemble cast is a case where less might have been more although too many characters is far from the film’s only problem.

Indeed what success the actors achieve here comes in spite of rather than because of their dialogue. When Jules questions Evan’s heritage in an argument over circumcision he proudly retorts that his “penis is all Jew.” It’s just one of many cringe-inducing lines. The only genuine humour comes from Chris Rock playing one of a group of fathers Alex befriends who brings typically energetic delivery to lazily stereotypical material (at one point he endorses feeding kids chicken nuggets for breakfast).

The attempts at drama are even lazier. Marco and Rosie’s food truck faceoff early on proves more gripping than Wendy’s unspecified postnatal complications which unsurprisingly are easily resolved. There’s only one truly dark cloud here and it doesn’t take the film long to find its silver lining.

No Hollywood film of course is likely to offer a realistic portrayal of pregnancy and it’s doubtful there would be much of a market for one anyway. But the title here is definitely at odds with the content. If What to Expect When You’re Expecting is in fact the bible on its subject then the cinematic version comes dangerously close to sacrilege.