Even though it doesn’t have a story, characters, or setting, Heidi Murkoff’s mega-bestselling, 28-year-old pregnancy manual, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, actually makes perfect sense as a vehicle for a contemporary Hollywood ensemble comedy. For an industry banked on bathroom humor, what could be more suitable than this vomit-, piss-, fart-, foreskin-, and flabby-vagina-filled tome? As adapted by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach and directed by Kirk Jones, the film similarly fails to tell a coherent story, create believable characters, or establish any sense of place (its Atlanta is strenuously Anywheresville). It, too, capitalizes on the anxious-mom demographic and proves equally preoccupied with pregnancy’s corporeal side effects. The difference, of course, is that for all the fear, loathing, and overthinking that Murkoff’s bedside text engenders, its journey ends with the hopeful beginning of a new life, whereas the movie leaves you hoping for a swift end to your own.
That feeling has less to do with the terrors of pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting than it does with the gargoyles What to Expect presents as characters—a carnival-mirrored tableau of yuppie soullessness. The film opens, appropriately enough, within the warped confines of reality TV: After taking the top prize in Celebrity Dance Factor, Cameron Diaz’s go-go fitness guru, Jules, upchucks into her trophy bowl, shocking both her dance/romantic partner, Evan (Glee‘s Matthew Morrison), and the nationally televised audience. “Let’s hope she’s not pregnant, folks,” quips the MC, but as with any female who has ever felt nauseated on-screen, she so is. Cut to a retail shop called “Breast Choice,” which is run by Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a Snuggie-wearing, mom-wannabe obsessive with a doormat of a husband, Gary (Ben Falcone); then to Jennifer Lopez as Holly, a childless children’s-portrait photographer who’s hoping to adopt an Ethiopian orphan despite the reservations of her callous hubby, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro); then over to food-cart dreamboat Marco (Chace Crawford), who seduces neighboring vendor Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and sets the interconnected fertilization machine in motion. Even Gary’s oily NASCAR-driver dad, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), gets into the act when his trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), starts harboring twins.
Soon, we’re cycling through baby bumps, sonograms, and punch-clock marital meltdowns between irrational, irritating, sex-withholding alpha gals and their resentful, ineffectual patsies. “I’m the one with the bad eggs,” Lopez screams on a street corner, her justifiable sorrow quickly overtaken by the implicit misogyny that the film’s baby-factory worldview affirms. “I’m the one who can’t do the one thing that a woman is supposed to be able to do.”
As you might expect from a future in-flight favorite, What to Expect When You’re Expecting strictly follows Hollywood’s culturally appeasing comedy template: sophomoric mockery of all that’s held sacred followed (and neatly corrected) by an affirmation of traditional values. “I just wanted the glow,” a weary Banks tells a group of mothers-to-be, “but I’m calling bullshit on the whole thing. Pregnancy sucks.” But demystification cedes to worship when the babe is in arms: “I finally found it. He’s my glow.” Nowhere is this turn more pronounced than in Santoro’s auditing of a “dudes group,” in which dads strapped in Baby Björns and pushing Smart Car–size strollers let off some parental steam. Represented at first as a harrowing mess of errant children and castrated manhood (the men drink from baby bottles in mocking slo-mo), the group ultimately embodies an unambiguous veneration of parental sacrifice. Never mind all that was said before about economic hardship and identity crises. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world,” says sloganeering ringleader Chris Rock.
The film, much like the culture at large, insists that pleasure ends when parenting begins, yet also that the parenting life is the only one worth living. God forbid there could be something in between. “End of day, family’s all that matters,” says Quaid, never mind that his character’s abusive fathering made his son into an obese neurotic. “Kids—that’s all we really leave behind.” If that’s true, and if millions of years of biological, intellectual, and technological evolution must yield to shallow-field American family values, the least we can do is cop to our shoddy legacy. Let’s start with this disdainful, demoralizing, grimly unfunny bastard of a film.