You can take the woman out of the sitcom, but you can't take the sitcom out of the woman. This was my thought after sitting through Helen Hunt's debut as a director, "Then She Found Me." The movie—like another comedy opening this weekend, "Baby Mama"—is about a woman desperate to have a baby. April Epner (Hunt) is a 39-year-old kindergarten teacher whose biological clock is ticking noisily. Though everyone tells her to adopt, she adamantly refuses, having been adopted herself. She wants pregnancy. This adaptation of an Elinor Lipman novel (written by Alice Arlen, Victor Levin and Hunt) picks up her story as she weds mama's boy Ben (Matthew Broderick). Not long afterward, her adoptive mom dies, and the hapless Ben decides matrimony was a mistake and flees.
The dramedy proper begins when two new figures enter April's floundering life. Frank (Colin Firth) is the angry, frazzled newly divorced father of one of her students, and we instantly know, because Hunt casts everyone (except herself) strictly according to type, that this simmering, seductive Brit will loom large in her romantic future. Enter Bette Midler as Bernice Graves, a woman claiming to be April's actual mom. Bernice is a brassily insincere local TV talk show host, and a world-class liar (she tells April she's the love child of a one-night stand with Steve McQueen). April wants nothing to do with her, until a DNA test confirms that Bernice is not lying about being her mom.
There's real anguish and an undertone of constant anxiety in "Then She Found Me"—all of it contained in Hunt's torn and frayed performance. But April—gaunt, jittery, and angry—is a three-dimensional character trapped in a two-dimensional romantic comedy. For as a director the TV veteran Hunt tends to hedge her bets, retreating to the safety of sitcom beats whenever the movie threatens to become too lugubrious. As nice as it is to see Midler back in action, she seems to be in a different, broader movie. She's never allowed to break out of her sashaying, artificial persona. Sure, she's playing a flamboyant performer, but the real woman underneath—which Midler is perfectly capable of playing—never emerges. Firth too tends to overdo his seething rage, while Broderick reprises his patented boy-man routine, sweet and ineffectual. It might have been a lot more interesting—and a lot less predictable—if the two had switched roles. As it is, the inevitable second act snag that jeopardizes the made-for-each-other relationship between April and Frank (which has to do with her raging sexual attraction to her estranged husband) is particularly hard to swallow.
There's a quirky, honest movie struggling to emerge from "Then She Found Me" (April's Jewish heritage is refreshingly portrayed, and there are lovely, scattered moments when the characters surprise you), but Hunt, in her directorial debut, can't seem to decide whether she'd rather make a spicy ethnic dish or bland comfort food.
"Baby Mama" is no less formulaic, but this broad odd-couple girl comedy has the advantage of knowing what it is. Tina Fey is 37-year-old yuppie extraordinaire Kate Holbrook, vice president of Round Earth organic foods and a woman who, until this moment, has chosen a career over relationships and motherhood. Now she too hears that bio-clock ticking, but having been told that she has a one in a million chance of conceiving (due, according to her doctor, to her T-shaped uterus), she decides to go the surrogate mom route. The surrogate is Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler), and as her lumpen name implies she's the polar opposite of affluent, persnickety Kate: gum-chewing, Red Bull-chugging trailer trash. Destined to share Kate's upscale Philadelphia apartment when Angie breaks up with her low-rent common-law husband (Dax Shepard), this oil-and-vinegar couple must learn to get along. And as I'm sure you could guess, before "Baby Mama" is over, each will have something to teach the other.
Fortunately, the pieties are kept well in check in Michael McCullers's movie, which he (not Fey, as you might have assumed) wrote and directed (though both Fey and Poehler, "Saturday Night Live" alumni, did a fair share of improvising). McCullers, who co-wrote a couple of the Austin Powers movies, has zero visual flair as a director, and the laughs come sporadically. But the film has some smarts about class differences; Kate is so obsessive about babyproofing her apartment that Angie can't figure out how to open the toilet and ends up using the sink. When the PC yuppie tries to force indigestible organic food on the junk-food-loving surrogate, Angie dismisses it witheringly: "That crap is for rich people who hate themselves."
Fey's Kate, for all her trendy compulsiveness, is surprisingly likable, never succumbing to the tired stereotype of the sterile yuppie who has sacrificed her sexuality and her soul for success. Poehler's role gets the bigger laughs: she's a gifted rubber-faced comedienne, particularly winning when, caught red-handed in one gaucherie after another—like sticking her gum under the coffee table—she outright denies what she's done.
When the central odd-couple joke threatens to get tired—and the inspiration does flag—"Baby Mama" is rescued by two scene-stealing veterans: Sigourney Weaver as the smug, patrician owner of the surrogate company, and a priceless, ponytailed Steve Martin as the self-infatuated New Age owner of Round Earth. These two aren't onscreen a lot, but the movie seems most fully alive when they are. And Greg Kinnear as a former corporate lawyer who now runs a juice bar—you knew there had to be a romantic interest for Kate before the fade out, didn't you?—gets the maximum out of a fairly thankless male ingénue role.
Aren't we always told that Hollywood is averse to making movies about women over 25? If nothing else, "Baby Mama" and "Then She Found Me" put that truism to rest. For one weekend out of the year, anyway, chick flicks rule.