Movie Review: Elizabeth Banks Deserves Better Than What to Expect

There are many things you could choose to be offended by in What to Expect When You’re Expecting: The fact that pretty much all its female characters define themselves entirely by their ability to have a baby; the fact that all its couples are straight and, well, couples; the fact that its insipid gender dynamics puts almost all the male characters into the same box (as somewhat hapless bystanders who have to then bond with each other while navigating their way around childcare). But perhaps the most offensive thing about the film, based/inspired/whatever on the decades-old pregnancy self-help book, is that it throws so many characters and situations at us and yet goes nowhere. The five couples on display here seem less like an attempt to create variety and more an excuse to avoid developing any one character’s predicament; to focus on one couple might have actually required some narrative ingenuity and drive.

The film opens with our first couple, Cameron Diaz and Matthew Morrison as reality-TV stars who win a celebrity dance competition just in time for her to barf into the trophy. (When the film cuts to the show’s host saying, “Let’s hope she’s not pregnant!” into the camera, we know we’re in for two hours of bullshit. Seriously, who says that?) But if there’s a real protagonist couple here, it’s probably Wendy (Elizabeth Banks) and Gary (Ben Falcone). She writes children’s books and advocates for breastfeeding despite having difficulties procreating; he’s preoccupied with his own career as a hotshot dentist and is a bit too much of a pushover. When they do finally get pregnant — after having impromptu sex in the park, which is of course how movie people get pregnant — they first have to contend with the fact that his NASCAR driver father (Dennis Quaid, pretty much stealing the show) and his airhead trophy wife (Brooklyn Decker) are also expecting, and then with the fact that pregnancy, as it turns out, is actually pretty miserable.

There’s potential in this careful-what-you-wish-for story line, and Banks in particular gets some nice moments, especially later on as her idyllic vision of pregnancy collides with the messy, painful, horrid reality of the situation. But the film stays irritatingly on the move — there’s also Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford, rival food-truck vendors who rekindle a high-school romance one night and end up on the wrong side of a pregnancy test. (They’re meant to serve as a kind of ironic counterpoint, I suppose, to Wendy and Gary, since their coupling occurs the same night, in the same park.) And then there’s Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro, who, unable to conceive, are trying to adopt an Ethiopian baby. Meanwhile, attempting to get into the daddy spirit, Santoro’s character begins spending time with a wisecracking group of playground papas, which includes Chris Rock, Thomas Lennon, and Rob Huebel, making for some obvious gags. (We see them walking in slow-motion, to the accompaniment of Notorious B.I.G. — it’s funny ‘cause they’re totally square, see?)

Believe it or not, the multi-character movie about the mommy impulse has been done better in the indie sphere — with John Sayles’s somber Mexican adoption tale Casa de los Babys and Rodrigo Garcia’s tragedy of intertwined motherhood Mother and Child. But those were grim dramas, and it would be insane to expect a comedy starring J. Lo and Cameron Diaz to measure up in any way to them. Still, one does wonder what a more focused approach might have yielded. (Knocked Up comes to mind, and it should tell you something that this movie makes Knocked Up look focused.) For starters, it might have given this talented cast more to do. And, by not trying so hard (and failing) to be all things to all people, the film might have, ironically, made us care more for its characters. As it stands, What to Expect When You’re Expecting is somehow both annoyingly overstuffed and depressingly thin.

What to Expect: Elizabeth Banks Deserves Better