On the first season of the wickedly funny “30 Rock,” TV producer Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) denied she had baby-fever, but when someone gave her an infant to hold for a few minutes, she went into a fugue state and suddenly found herself back in her apartment, having walked across much of Manhattan with the child in her arms.
Fey portrays a similar character in the new big-screen comedy “Baby Mama,” a vice-president of a Whole Foods–ish organic grocery chain who has given up on the husband-first-then-a-baby paradigm.
Fey’s Kate Holbrook, alas, suffers from a T-shaped uterus (mom Holland Taylor was apparently taking anti–liver spots medication while pregnant) which makes conception exceedingly unlikely. After getting put on a five-year waiting list for adoption, Kate decides to hire a surrogate through an agency run by corporate tiger and menopausal mother Chaffee Bicknell (a slyly hilarious Sigourney Weaver).
And thus does Angie Ostrowiski (Amy Poehler) enter Kate’s life. The polar opposite of the organized, anal-retentive Kate, Angie is the smoking, drinking, trashy common-law wife of the even more mouth-breathy Carl (Dax Shepard), who pushed Angie into the baby-carrying biz in the first place.
“Baby Mama” keeps the laughs coming, mainly from the horror that Kate and Angie experience over the other’s excesses, but also through amusingly eccentric supporting characters like Steve Martin as Kate’s kajillionaire tree-hugger boss and Greg Kinnear’s independent smoothie maker with a hatred for Jamba Juice.
Even when the movie gets bogged down in plot — Angie fakes being pregnant, but then it turns out that she is, but the baby may actually be Carl’s — the zingers keep coming and the characters maintain a sense of being both cartoony and realistic.
What keeps “Baby Mama” from being as successful as it might have been can be blamed on what appears to be a failure of nerve. If you’ve gotten to know Fey and Poehler’s work on “Saturday Night Live” (or, particularly, Fey’s on “30 Rock”), you get a sense that these are comic talents who aren’t afraid to take things to a level of discomfort, outrageousness or even borderline surrealism. But in this script — credited to “SNL” and “Austin Powers” scribe Michael McCullers, although Fey and Poehler are said to have given the material a polish — things get soft where they should be sharp and cozy instead of crazy.
In the same way that a polished, articulate adult will be reduced to a puddle of “oogy-woogy-noogy” in the presence of an infant, “Baby Mama” chucks any subversive quality it might have had in exchange for learning, personal growth, and a sappy happy ending that’s smothered in hugs and Huggies.