I feel bad complaining about the current fertility trend in movies, since if I weren't watching women wrestle with pregnancy, I would barely be able to watch them in comedies at all. The genre has been colonized by men who grant women the ability to deliver a baby but rarely a joke. So on these grounds alone "Baby Mama" is an unexpected triumph. It's a romantic screwball comedy about a yuppie and the woman she pays to carry her baby. The movie was written and directed by a man, Michael McCullers. But it cuts out the obligatory middleman and lets two women make us laugh, often very hard.
Kate Holbrook (Tina Fey) is 37 and occupationally accomplished (she works as a vice president at a comical Whole Foods-ish supermarket chain in Philadelphia). But she's single, childless, and having a terrible time conceiving. She could keep injecting herself with hormones. She could adopt. Instead, she pays an agency $100,000 to find a surrogate. The search turns up Angie Ostrowski (Amy Poehler), a petite and stupendously blond slacker with bad eating habits and a dolt named Carl (Dax Shepard) for a boyfriend.
An hour with Angie and I might have reconsidered the deal, but Kate is intrepid. At the end of their first date, Angie proposes the surrogacy and Kate eagerly, almost sexily accepts, saying, "Angie, I'm gonna put my baby inside you." Only R. Kelly could have put it better. The ensuing trip to the fertility doctor is a montage scored to "Endless Love" that produces the perversely heavenly sight of Poehler swinging her legs into stirrups. The movie drums up an excuse for pregnant Angie to move into Kate's apartment so the personalities can really clash and the culture farce can really get going: the fastidious yuppie versus the low-class dingbat.
The movie has fun outside Kate's spacious Philadelphia apartment. (It looks suspiciously like a nice adult apartment on Manhattan's Riverside Drive.) Romany Malco is Kate's sweetly streetwise doorman. Sigourney Weaver is the hilariously fertile founder of a surrogate-parent organization (her headquarters resemble the oval office). Steve Martin has some amusing scenes as Kate's kooky extra-crunchy boss - those flower-print shirts suggest he's running Trader Joe's on the side. And Greg Kinnear, getting sexier by the role, plays the owner of a smoothie shop who's worried that Kate's new store might be gentrifying the neighborhood. Here we have a slight reversal of the galling finale of "You've Got Mail," where the man puts the woman he likes out of business, but she loves him anyway.
But the movie's hook is the rapport between its two stars. They turn a classical screwball relationship upside down. Fey is Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby," stiff, law-abiding, humorously humorless. Poehler is Katharine Hepburn by way of Jerry Lewis. The years they spent working together on "Saturday Night Live," where Poehler still works, have turned them into a sharply instinctive comedy duo. The uproariously uncouth people Poehler often plays are a natural affront to Fey's buttoned-up professionals. They're roiling ids and ridiculously physical. Poehler gradually lets a human being out of Angie long enough for the characters to seem like more than a gag. But she's at her delirious best when out of physical control.
"Baby Mama" is less than a perfect movie - it's shoddily assembled, and McCullers's coincidence-driven script, smart as it sometimes is, rushes us out the door. But in this era of Apatow and Ferrell and Rogen and Wilson, of men monopolizing movie comedy, "Baby Mama" feels absurdly momentous, and even political. Fey and Poehler aren't just taking back control of their bodies. They're taking back control of their profession.