After all, the trials of being a parent-to-be have been a well-worn film subject. In order to differentiate itself in a world that already has, say, “Knocked Up” or “Juno,” a movie like “What to Expect” needs to add some new insight to the subject matter.
There are some good laughs in “What to Expect,” but not enough. And as for the new ground, it’s virtually nonexistent. The result is an occasionally pleasing, mostly uneven comedy.
It’s not as if the film doesn’t try. Based on the books of the same name, Shauna Cross’ and Heather Hach’s screenplay jumps among no less than five couples, whose lives are connected “Love, Actually”-style, each going through their own issues as they prepare to become parents. Problem is, the issues are mostly typical and predictable.
Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a Gillian Michaels-type TV weight loss coach who gets pregnant by her celebrity dance show partner, Evan (Matthew Morrison). Wendy and Gary (Elizabeth Banks and Ben Falcone) are the couple that’s desperate to conceive; Wendy even has an alert on her phone to remind her when she’s ovulating. Once they succeed, Gary finds himself in competition with his famous, ultra-competitive father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid); it turns out Ramsey and his much younger trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), are pregnant with twins. Meanwhile, Rosie and Marco (Anna Kendrick and Chace Crawford) are early-twenties, former almost-prom dates who hook up one night and get the result you’d expect. And for good measure, there’s a Third World adoption storyline thrown in: Holly and Alex (Jennifer Lopez and Rodrigo Santoro) haven’t been able to conceive, so they’re preparing to adopt a baby from Ethiopia.
In the tradition of recent ensemble comedies, director Kirk Jones keeps things moving, not staying with any couple for too long at a time. As each of these stories are fleshed out, there’s a sense of familiarity to these couples’ struggles that might appeal to pregnant couples who can relate. But to everyone else, you’ll just feel like you’ve seen this stuff before. Jules and Evan, who knew each other for only a few months before getting pregnant, try to balance pregnancy and work, and argue the pros and cons of circumcision. Gary is determined to become a better father than Ramsey was. Alex is thoroughly unsure whether he’s ready to become a dad. The development of the Rosie-Marco relationship, in particular, is botched horribly; the movie’s earliest emotional climax involves these two, and because of the lazily handled buildup, it doesn’t pack near the wallop that it should.
Despite lots of edgy and attempted-edgy dialogue, the true comic moments are sporadic – but there are some solid chuckles. To prepare for life as a father, Alex spends his time hanging out in the park with an entourage of baby sling-wearing, stroller-pushing dads. Led by Chris Rock, their interactions and observations on how fatherhood changes your life are genuinely funny and give the movie more intergender appeal. And in the movie’s last half-hour or so, it’s Banks who shines. Emotionally collapsing under the weight of the pregnancy she longed for, her Wendy character melts down in hilarious and public fashion, then provides the biggest laughs during the film’s obvious, but surprisingly fairly satisfying, wrapup.
“What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is a mediocre time-passer if you’re willing to wait for a few laughs, or if you’re a particular fan of one or two of the actors. It probably works best for pregnant or formerly pregnant parents who want to sit and nod their heads in acknowledgement of what these characters are going through. Yep, this is what prospective parenthood is like. Unfortunately, we already knew.