There’s actually nothing to expect from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” as most audiences have already seen this material processed countless times on television and film, perhaps even radio for a few viewers out there. Like a bad sitcom without fresh idea to share, the picture is a miserable, formulaic descent into the vast wonderland of neuroses surrounding oncoming parenthood, with most variations of baby acquisition and delivery covered to communicate the diverse experiences of pregnancy and adoption. The large ensemble is here to distract from the flaccid scripting, with director Kirk Jones putting a lot of faith in star power to motor through a movie that’s intending to be the definitive word on family life. Too bad it’s all been covered a hundred times before.
After the box office success of “How to Think Like a Man,” perhaps the idea of adapting a self-help book for the big screen isn’t such a strange idea after all. The 1984 best-seller from Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel doesn’t seem like a natural fit for a feature (with its nutritional guides and monthly planning), yet screenwriters Shauna Cross and Heather Hach gladly accept the challenge to help reshape the book for movie audiences, with the target demographic being pregnant women, women looking forward to pregnancy, and women who’ve just had a baby. Instead of treating the source material with a clinical spin, “Expecting” is divided into four major dramatic plots, each detailing the combustible life changes found prior to delivery. Long gone is the how-to aspect of the book, replaced here with a cumbersome serio-comic tone that overwhelms Jones the moment it commences.
Dealing with pregnancy woes, miscarriages, and adoption (for whatever reason, surrogacy isn’t included), the story spreads out among the couples, permitting punchlines to be shared and tears to be shed. The problem with “Expecting” is how robotic the endeavor becomes, hitting beats of pregnancy discomfort and domestic claustrophobia with zero originality, trudging through cliché without shame, leaning on the expansive cast to make a little magic with dud material. Only Banks establishes a positive impression, presenting a mildly madcap performance as a parenting specialist on a downward spiral of bodily issues, trying desperately to keep herself together while her femininity explodes. Banks knows how to nab a laugh, supported firmly by Falcone, who receives his own subplot as Gary, a former overeater, deals with parental issues brought on by his hot-dogging NASCAR legend of a father. The pairing is the only real highlight of “Expecting,” presenting enormous charisma and timing where the likes of Diaz, Lopez, Crawford, and Santoro fail miserably.
To keep the male audience interested in the vaginal business displayed here, there’s a contingent of fathers who gather every Sunday to bond over mistakes, share stories, worship a single friend (Joe Manganiello), and hold secrets. Led by Chris Rock, the group is intended to be comic relief, displaying the other half of tiring parental duties. There’s nothing outwardly funny about the boys (rap music to butch up the intro of the characters is as moldy as the rest of the effort), but I’m pleased Hach and Cross didn’t write the guys as imbeciles unable to take care of a human life. For a brief, shining moment, “Expecting” doesn’t bellyflop in the obvious direction, treating dads with a pinch of competence.
The individual stories each carry significant melodrama and slapstick. Jones doesn’t quite know how to juggle the constantly shifting tonalities, leaving much of the feature an uneventful mess of contrivances, lacking a spark of wit to enliven the picture. The movie basically runs around in circles until the finale, when the baby showcase begins. Working with broad screams of labor pains and spiritual adoption reveals, “Expecting” goes exactly where it needs to, using close-ups of freshly arrived infants to erase the 100 minutes of nonsense that preceded it. It’s cheap but effective.
There’s a brief, angelic moment near the end, with the mothers aglow, the fathers proud, and the babies gurgling that almost makes one forget that this is a brutally predictable, wildly unfunny film. Almost.