Is Tina Fey, former head writer for "Saturday Night Live" and creator and star of one of the best shows on television, "30 Rock," going to get hit with a knee-jerk media backlash now? It could happen, given the blood-thirst that motivates so much cultural writing these days and, of course, her "convention-defying" success. I'm never quite sure that the conventions defied are real rather than media-made, but whether her new comedy "Baby Mama" blows up or is quickly ushered off the national stage like a grateful documentarian at the Academy Awards, it's a pretty safe bet that Fey's exotic status as a funny, smart woman over 35 will be cited.
"Baby Mama," which was written for Fey and her "Weekend Update" co-anchor Amy Poehler by "SNL" alumnus and "Austin Powers" screenwriter Michael McCullers, who also directs, is blithely unconcerned with gender-baiting. In fact, the movie hardly allows itself any sharp moments at all -- it's much too sweet-natured to be cruel, and much too cheerful to be angry. It probably could have pushed a few more buttons, but "Baby Mama" aims to please and succeeds.
Fey plays Kate Holbrook, a 37-year-old single businesswoman who is suddenly overcome with the desire to have a baby. She's not a basket case, she's just a fool in love with little, bald, fat incontinent creatures. She tries a sperm donor, but the insemination doesn't take. Kate has an unfortunate T-shaped uterus, and her dreams of motherhood are dashed. Enter Angie Ostrowiski (Poehler), an underachiever from South Philadelphia turned surrogate mother.
Considering the premise, "Baby Mama" might have gone the skewering route, taking on all that is over-the-top about technology-assisted, socially revolutionary baby-making and rearing. And it does get in some jabs. When it lets the mean zingers fly, it's mercilessly on-target. In one scene, Kate and Angie meet to work out some issues with Chaffee Bicknell (Sigourney Weaver), the formidable, clearly post-menopausal head of the surrogacy agency that has brought them together. When Chaffee smugly announces that she's expecting, Kate and Angie allow their shock to register. Then Angie mutters under her breath, "Expecting what? A Social Security check?"
There are other moments like that: Angie's IVF is played like a romantic scene, set to the song "Endless Love," as a fertility doctor (John Hodgman) preps the turkey-baster-sized syringe in the background; a mother in a playground tells her kids it's time for their play-date with Wingspan and Banjo; Kate's callous mom (whose liver spot medication may have caused her daughter's uterus problems) begs her not to adopt a black baby just because the celebrities are doing it.
But most of the time, "Baby Mama" stays away from satire and goes for smiles as often as it goes for laughs. "Baby Mama" is a love-fest, a good-natured buddy comedy whose humor comes from the odd-coupling of Angie and Kate, who wind up living together after Angie leaves her trashy common-law husband, Carl (Dax Shepard). Poehler and Fey play against stereotype with sweet, unexpected results.
Basically, Fey is Martin to Poehler's Lewis. When Angie first shows up in Kate's life, it's in a pigpen cloud of bad choices and chaos. But McCullers doesn't milk the white-trash bashing for long, and Angie mellows into a three-dimensional character in fairly short order. What she doesn't lose is that lunatic edge that makes her so funny. Next to Fey's even-tempered, good girl, Poehler is a loose cannon. As Kate complains to her sister Caroline, an under-used (where has she been?) Maura Tierney, after Angie first moves in, "It's like living with a child!" Pregnant and surrounded by out-of-control kids, Caroline reminds her that she soon will be living with an actual child, so she'd better get used to it.
If Angie is a nice respite from the usual blue-collar representations, Kate is an especially welcome antidote to the prevalent movie stereotype of the working woman who forgot to have a baby. Unlike, say, Helen Hunt's character in this week's other desperate non-housewife movie "Then She Found Me," Kate is a warm, calming, grounding presence. Her brand of desperation -- if you can even call it that -- is gooier, more distracted, more romantic than the hard-edged kind you usually get.
The men in Kate's life, aside from a hilariously cheesy, mustache-sporting ex played by Will Forte, are limited at first to co-workers, in particular her boss, Barry, a super-groovy health food chain owner played by Steve Martin. Martin and Weaver make up the smug boomer contingent of the movie, the we-can-have-it-all types who make life so hard for people like Kate. (Kate's boss rewards her for a job well done with "five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact.") As annoying as Barry is, Kate treats him with respect and affection.
In the process of looking for a site for a new store, Kate meets Rob (Greg Kinnear), a corporate lawyer turned proprietor of Super Fruity, a smoothie place under constant threat by Jamba Juice. Of course, Rob is as super fruity as Kate is a mean old career woman -- which is to say not at all.
"Baby Mama" adheres fairly closely to the conventions of the studio comedy, although it's never actually predictable, probably because the characters and subject matter are so novel. Relatively standard product as it is, it's also unexpectedly scrappy. When Kate learns of Rob's antipathy for Jamba Juice, she raises her voice in genuine surprise. "Jamba Juice is 'The Man?' " For a guy with a corner juice shop with an equivocal name and an unfortunately shaped logo (an apple and an orange flanking a banana), it is. It's all a matter of how you look at it.
Fey has spent several years proving that she's very good at what she does, and she may spend the next few years having to prove that she deserves any success that comes her way. But hey, this is America -- where the fact that a woman is running for president is still talked about with a kind of gee-whiz-look-how-far-we've-come disingenuousness, despite the many countries that have already seen one or more women presidents. If a Fey backlash happens, I hope Hillary buys her a drink.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, language and a drug reference. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In wide release.