Someone ought to outline how many laughs make a successful comedy. Obviously, the more you have the better, but what’s the cutoff for a comedy to be good enough? One gut-busting laugh every ten minutes? Every five?
Some restaurant patrons find it practical to keep a tip card in their wallet or purse so they know how generous a gratuity to leave, so a laugh chart might be helpful in this particularly middling era of big screen comedies. There are comedies that are more obviously great than others – Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and There’s Something About Mary leap to mind – but what about the flicks you kind of want to like and don’t remind you of a dozen others you’ve seen but still leave you straddling the fence?
Consider the case of Baby Mama, which, on the surface, is a rather cynical pregnancy comedy written by and starring Tina Fey. Fey is, rightly or no, probably the most celebrated comedienne going right now. She displayed a real surgeon’s touch as the head writer and “Weekend Update” co-anchor on Saturday Night Live and parlayed that success into the clever screenplay for Mean Girls and her critically acclaimed 30 Rock, one of the many shows on NBC that nobody watches.
As someone who knows the ins and outs of sketch comedy and the pragmatism of establishing a story quickly and delivering consistent punch lines because of either six- or thirty-minute time constraints, Fey should also know that the best comedies rarely pace themselves. And Baby Mama runs out of top-notch jokes early and spreads the rest too thin to be truly effective, unless your comedy chart says that exploiting five memorable, surprising laughs in an hour-and-a-half is effective.
In Baby Mama, Fey plays Kate, a successful executive who has never had time for relationships and a family. Now staring at 40 from a not-so-safe distance, Kate wants a baby, but is told by her doctor that she can’t conceive. Left with no other alternative, she decides to hire a surrogate to carry her baby, but she probably didn’t expect white trash Angie (Amy Poehler) to be the solution to her problems… or are her problems just beginning?
Of course, nothing goes smoothly with the pregnancy, and there are a few winning moments that surface, almost exclusively because of Poehler’s do-anything-for-a-laugh moxie, but that same approach can also backfire, and in Baby Mama, without much support to bolster the relatively low amount of good comedy, it often does.
There are a few too many diversions, too – common when a sketch writer tackles the length of a feature film the first few times – like Kate’s weird, earthy boss (Steve Martin) and her rushed-in love interest (Greg Kinnear).
Perhaps most curious, though, is a lack of chemistry across the board. Comedies, even mediocre ones like this, can seem much better if the cast is simply on the same wavelength, but that doesn’t happen in Baby Mama. In fact, the best scenes are probably the handful of exchanges between Poehler and her deadbeat husband (Dax Shepard), which tells you how easy this movie is to hijack.
Even still, Baby Mama struggles to approach double digits in laughs, and that’s not nearly enough to get over the hump. Or the baby bump, in this case.
Starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler
Directed by Michael McCullers