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Baby Mama

It's easy to say that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are two of the funniest women working in comedy today. Aside from their time together on Saturday Night Live, they've both accomplished wickedly funny work on shows like 30 Rock and Upright Citizens' Brigade. Because of the latter company's commitment to quality stage work for little recognition, take it a step further and say that Poehler has an incredible amount of integrity, too. With those bloodlines, Baby Mama should be great.

Unfortunately, they put their eggs in the basket of writer/director Michael McCullers, a guy with a long comedy pedigree, too. Like Fey and Poehler, he spent time in the trenches at Saturday Night Live, before detouring under Mike Meyers' wing for the Austin Powers series. He has trouble establishing a tone, and a tendency to let looser, more TV sketch-oriented performances run wild and free, losing sight of what should have been a clever premise.

Baby Mama rarely develops beyond a set-up for random scenes along a timeline. Kate Holbrook (Fey) has sacrificed relationships for a high-powered career, but now finds herself with a serious case of baby fever. After a few half-hearted attempts at artificial insemination - the sequence is a little unclear, but it may be just one try - Kate investigates surrogate motherhood.

This pairs her up with Poehler's "white trash" Angie Ostrowiski, a Philadelphia native straight out of the SNL playbook. Always exactly as smart or dim as the scene requires her to be, Angie agrees to carry Kate's baby, taking it too far and leaving her common law husband Carl (Dax Shepherd) to intrude upon Kate's upper-class world.

Certainly the paranoia of impending motherhood has plenty of room for laughs. But Baby Mama doesn't offer any particular new insights there. Jokes about proper diet go on for too long, and together Kate and Angie take a birthing class in scenes that (like an Austin Powers film) believe that overplaying a speech impediment automatically equals gut-busting laughs. Both Fey and Poehler have dryer sensibilities than this, and both occasionally seem desperate to make this seem funnier than it is.

It doesn't help that not everybody fits in the loony world being set up. Certainly, Steve Martin and Sigourney Weaver know how to play broader characters. Though both wring laughs out of their roles, you can't shake the feeling that you've seen them do the same characters during hosting duties for SNL.

In particular, Weaver's Chaffee Bicknell has walked right in off of a commercial parody, an obviously sextegenarian with a mysteriously young uterus, an impossible joke the script never explains, yet milks to its utmost.The sensation gets worse when Will Arnett and Fred Armisen show up, both funny guys that have yet to play realistic people.

Though never sharing scenes, they clash with the tone of Maura Tierney as Kate's sister Caroline and Greg Kinnear as "unexpected" love interest Rob. All Tierney gets to do is show up, look beatific about motherhood and flash that look of world-weary understanding that she does so well. At least Kinnear makes his juice-store owner seem sincere in his anger toward the big business practices of Jamba Juice. That Kate works for a store that would likely anger him even more never gets addressed, though when the story requires it, he suddenly turns into Mr. Wrong.

The script also provides too many phantom characters, bare plot contrivances that seem important for a moment, yet never actually appear. Kinnear has a daughter, and despite several mentions and some emotional resonance, she remains off-stage.

That worked for Niles' wife on Frasier, but this isn't a sitcom.

This also isn't a particularly funny movie, though it should have been. It isn't quite a collection of sketches around a theme, though that might have worked. This also isn't the showcase for Fey and Poehler that they obviously thought it would be. If only Baby Mama could have decided what it is. Instead, we're left with hopes and dreams and a desire to watch Knocked Up.

Derek McCaw

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