Dir. Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer. Starring Jack Quaid, Maya Erskine, Ed Begley, Jr.
Dir. Jennifer Westfeldt. Starring Jennifer Westfeldt, Adam Scott, Maya Rudolph
FOMO is a very Internet term, although I think in most cases it refers to the life that takes place outside the bounds of one’s phone or TV or laptop. Sure, there’s fear of missing out in terms of not understanding the memes, or in not knowing what half of your Facebook friends are talking about at any one time. I think the reason the term has caught on is because it refers to something more elemental than what people are doing on the Internet, even if the best way to know you’re missing out is to scroll through Instagram for twenty minutes. Plus One is about the fear of missing out on marriage; Friends with Kids is about the fear of missing out on parenthood. No one uses the Internet in any serious way in either movie, even though the people in the former really ought to be hooked to their phones in a way that the filmmakers, who think people are still singing “Semi-Charmed Life” on party buses, plainly don’t understand. In a summer of weddings, Ben (Quaid) turns out to be deeply worried that he’ll never find the right girl. While surrounded by friends of a similar age whose little kids have torpedoed their sex lives, Julie (Westfeldt) and Jason (Scott) decide that they can maneuver their way into parenthood with each other while never having to sacrifice finding the right partner. In both movies, age has everything to do with this new math. Ben and Alice (Erskine) both know that with thirty bearing down on them, there is an expectation that they’ll wind up with someone in the near future lest they be viewed by parents or future partners alike as some kind of damaged goods. For Julie, the matter is a more practical one since she is closing in on forty (although the movie overplays its hand a little on that front), and if she wants to be someone’s mother without adopting, she has to make that move decisively. Neither one of these movies, interestingly enough, does much beyond describing what that fear of missing out is like. Once Ben realizes that Alice has been the right girl all along, the two of them reunite and the movie ends. Once Julie and Jason have a kid, the movie quickly shifts away from whatever kind of fulfillment they get out of being parents and runs headlong into the question of whether the two of them will wind up with other people or will end up with each other (ding ding ding). There’s a statement being made about the vanity of that idle fear, but neither movie is particularly aware that such a statement is being made.
Plus One is the more likable of the two movies, and also the less ambitious, and I think those go hand in hand. The movie relies heavily on elements we’ve seen before in romantic comedies: a guy who is decent but not like, a friggin’ catch or anything, and a girl who’s got some weird vibes who puts herself out there for that guy. In Erskine’s hands, Alice’s weirdness is a really endearing one. There’s no quirky or pixie about her; the movie centers her weirdness on physical stuff, like asking Ben to cuddle with her before the two of them have vocalized the feelings that even then must have been just rippling under the surface. There’s that running gag about peeing in the shower, or being told that her “cooter’s out” waking up the morning after some graveside coitus, or, in one of the movie’s earlier scenes, an interaction where she tells Ben that a kid’s arm is just incredibly soft. This is usually not much better than the pixie bit, but Erskine is genuinely funny even though the character, as is so often the case in these movies, is still the 1A in a movie which is presumably about two people. The movie is not quite sure what to do with Alice once she tells Ben that she’s in love with him, which is made clear because the movie pulls away from her entirely and makes Ben its central character in that last act, so much so that she does not appear in a single scene that he’s not in from that point on. As a goofy type, Erskine shines, and there’s even something positive to be said about the way we see how hurt she is when Ben can’t say that he loves her too, but it’s clear that she’s just not as interesting to the people making the movie as Ben is, even though she’s clearly the movie’s most interesting character. Ben’s dad (Begley) is getting married for a third time, which is only driving Ben further into the maze he’s made where the girl he falls for has to be perfect for him (“the one”) so his marriage can last. It’s not such a bad hang-up, but the movie bangs this so thoroughly that it makes a paillard of what should have been made plain early on in a conversation Ben and Alice have. Alice points out that Ben always does this thing with girls where he puts them on pedestals until he figures out they’re human after all, at which point he ends things. The movie does not need more than that, but it certainly indulges in this line of thought long past the point of effectiveness.
It’s part of the formula which it seems like any indie romance has to solve in order to complete. There is no meet-cute in Plus One, although Ben defines the term for Alice on that same shuttle where Third Eye Blind is still a thing, but it does include a slightly troubled relationship between father and son, not quite sober sex in unusual places (a serious conversation between Ben and Alice while they’re fully clothed in a pool is the first step in a night which ends with them glazing the doughnut together in a cemetery), an argument that comes out of nowhere in order to ensure that the course of true love takes ninety minutes and not seventy-five,, and most annoyingly the same joke setup over and over again.
Person A: (says something a little weird)
Person B: (repeats the weird thing back to them in a disbelieving tone)
It’s funny the first couple times, but it’s so transparent that eventually it feels like Chan and Rhymer just kind of gave up on any other kind of way to tell jokes. (At least there’s no “How are you everywhere?”) My personal favorite comes when Ben shouts something lewd at a diner which silences the place, but that’s mostly because we’ve all seen Quaid’s mother do it better.
When Harry Met Sally… hangs over Friends with Kids as well, but only if you took all the funny parts out and replaced them with the least comprehensible plotlines of The Big Chill, a movie which it’s clear that Julie and Jason have never seen. Like When Harry Met Sally, the primary romantic moments of the film require Jason to list off the things he likes about Julie and how much he understands about her thanks to years and years of friendship, or to run back to see her when she is out on him and he finally recognizes that he’s throwing a good thing away. It’s an ending that I don’t know a different word for than “cowardly,” because for a while it does feel like the movie is trying to be something besides a romantic comedy, and of course the picture ends with the last unmarried people, who incidentally have a kid together, deciding to stay with each other. Friends with Kids does not necessarily have to end that way, does not need to give Julie and Jason a happy ending, because it certainly seems content to show us different possibilities for both characters. Jason manages to land Mary Jane (a very unexpected Megan Fox) while he’s out with the stroller one day, and if Ben and Alice glaze that doughnut, Jason and Mary Jane open a Krispy Kreme. This frustrates Julie, who’s figured out that she actually is into Jason, but she consoles herself with Kurt (Edward Burns), who is divorced with children but also undoubtedly the most grown up adult in this movie. He’s not exactly overwhelmed with competition, but all the same he seems like a decent guy. Julie and Jason’s plan always seems a little too clever, but it takes an outburst from Ben (this one is Jon Hamm, not Jack Quaid) at a New Year’s Eve party up in Vermont to hit the nail on the head on that score. This is going great now because your son is a toddler, he says, but how are you going to explain to him that mommy and daddy never loved each other? Part of the reason he’s raising this question is that he’s drunk; part of it is the fact that his marriage to Missy (Kristen Wiig) has been in free-fall for just about the entire movie. But as much as Jason protests in a pretty heated scene, what Ben says is too reasonable for it not to hang over the non-traditional relationship that Julie and Jason have dreamed up without the help of lawyers or paperwork. The movie could, if it had wanted to, delved further into that idea instead of saying, “Well, there are lots of non-traditional families, like what gay people are doing” (which is a pretty near paraphrase of something Maya Rudolph’s character says!) or, of course, ending with Julie and Jason deciding they want to be together. There’s a significantly more interesting movie in the imagination, where Friends with Kids ends not with everyone recognizing themselves more accurately, but with Ben’s prediction coming true. Jason gets bored with Mary Jane, and Julie cements a life with Kurt despite yearning for Jason. The movie replaces suffering, which would be engaging and practically unique within this genre, with a few arguments, and hopes that we won’t notice the difference.