Drama done poorly can elicit boredom and disdain, but there’s a special type of aghast irritation triggered by terrible cinematic comedy. While humor may be subjective, and wacky situations and jokes themselves can therefore hit or miss depending on the viewer, when a comedic film with naturalistic roots fails to establish a single realistic character whatsoever, it can make one want to toss eggs at its makers. And that, in a nutshell, describes Expecting, the strained, tone-deaf and almost offensively slapdash feature film debut of writer-director Jessie McCormack, whose film careens haplessly from one artificial set-up to the next in telling the story of a surrogate pregnancy involving female friends.
After having spent years trying to conceive with her Los Angeles real-estate broker husband, Peter (Jon Dore), would-be mom Lizzie (Radha Mitchell) has mostly given up on having a family. Then her bohemian best pal, Andie (Michelle Monaghan), finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand. Andie isn’t thrilled (“I don’t really want to have a baby, but to get rid of it at my age seems a bit gauche”), but offers up an unexpected solution: take the baby to term and give it to her friends.
Lizzie and Peter accept, but since Andie is manic and shot through with all sorts of other anxiety and social inappropriateness, she agrees to move in with them until the birth. This coincides with Peter also taking in his adopted stepbrother, Casey (Michael Weston), fresh out of rehab for a heroin addiction. Manufactured indie-film dramedy ensues.
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s similarly themed Baby Mama, from 2008, wasn’t high art, but it was witty and well paced, and certainly met expectations in delivering a mash-up of the former’s self-effacing comedic persona and the latter’s screwy, unhinged guise. Expecting, by contrast, seemingly passes around a baton that variably renders characters dolts. One moment, they’re onboard with a plan; later, they’re not, for reasons not particularly well articulated.
The film endeavors to stake out a broad-appeal, cross-gender raunchiness (at her first ultrasound appointment, Andie notes it “feels like I’m being jizzed on”), but the jokes flow less from character than the feeling that McCormack somehow thought this was a smart “commercial” choice. Expecting then mortally pulls a muscle when, halfway through, it contrives a blowjob scenario not just so it can make a “Fellatio Alger” joke, but as a major plot point of phony panic, concerning commingled DNA and the integrity of in-utero blood-brain barrier.
There is plenty of potential comedic material in the conceit itself—worries about nature versus nurture, for instance, as well as more general lifestyle clashes. But McCormack has no eye or ear for real human behavior. Instead, she repeatedly opts for laboriously set up, air-quote wacky conflicts, like with arguments about nicknames, and a confrontation over eating on the couch that devolves into a slap-fight—something about which no two men have ever physically fought in the entire history of humankind.
A plot strand with Lizzie and Peter’s therapist (Mimi Kennedy) is broad and hopelessly underdeveloped, and the manner in which the movie treats Casey’s basic post-rehab mindset, whether or not he’s sincere in his sobriety, is distractingly false. Then there’s the matter of a finale in which characters are meant to forget Andie’s due date, all while searching for a lost dog.
If its royally inept screenplay is the tool by which Expecting most readily delivers exasperation and annoyance to viewers, McCormack’s aimless direction also brings out the worst instincts in her actors, who give performances that exhibit no fixed, innate character traits. Monaghan, who frequently laughs at her own jokes like a hyena, comes across as mentally unstable, or at the very least possessing of some significant personality disorder. Meanwhile Dore, who physically resembles a skinnier, bearded Will Sasso, plays every scene like a self-satisfied, poor man’s Paul Rudd, even down to his impersonated vocal timbre.
On a certain anthropological level, Expecting is a fascinating misfire. But make no mistake—this movie is not even “so bad it’s good.” It’s simply bad. By all means, though, if fans of Monaghan or Mitchell feel compelled to hear them rhapsodize about “gargling balls,” this dreadful train wreck may be their only chance.
Director: Jessie McCormack
Writer: Jessie McCormack
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Radha Mitchell, Jon Dore, Michael Weston, Mimi Kennedy
Release Date: Dec. 6, 2013