It may seem a cynical take on the subject, but every subsequent dip into the "Love Actually" well over the past decade has only seen decreasing charms in return, save perhaps for last month's surprisingly sharp "Think Like a Man." When I say that this month's "What to Expect When You're Expecting" -- similarly inspired by a self-help book -- isn't all that bad, I mean that it doesn't share the slapdash characteristics of Garry Marshall's "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve." As an ensemble comedy, though, it remains patently contrived to deliver the safer side of pregnancy-related humor over the course of five tidily intersecting plot lines.
There's maternity store owner Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), whose efforts to conceive with husband Gary (Ben Falcone) finally bear fruit, only for Wendy to endure all the worst symptoms of pregnancy. Gary feels one-upped by his competitive father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), as he expects twins with trophy wife Skyler (Brooklyn Decker), whose prenatal ease infuriates Wendy to no end. There are competitive food truck owners Rosie (Anna Kendrick) and Marco (Chace Crawford) contending with the result of a one-night stand, reality show stars Jules (Cameron Diaz) and Evan (Matthew Morrison) dealing with a similarly unexpected pregnancy in the public spotlight, and a barren couple -- photographer Holly (Jennifer Lopez) and ad man Alex (Rodrigo Santoro) -- who opt to adopt.
The scenarios concocted by screenwriters Shauna Cross ("Whip It") and Heather Hach (2003's "Freaky Friday" remake) run the gamut from traditional procreation to accidental conception, adoption and emergency C-sections. A miscarriage only plagues one storyline, while the matter of abortion is unsurprisingly kept off the table. Couples fight over baby names and whether or not to circumcise, mothers demand an epidural that they initially refused (aren’t we past that gag yet?), while fathers cling to their dignity at weekend park meet-ups where worn-out men like Thomas Lennon and Chris Rock -- as, apparently, the only black man in Atlanta -- can gripe about their taxing lifestyle before doubling back on those sentiments in the third act. One weekend, it's "parenthood is where happiness comes to die!"; the next, it's "there's nothing like becoming a parent."
That's all to be expected (pardon the pun), yet the ensemble commits to some measure of sincerity all around as director Kirk Jones ("Everybody's Fine") juggles the threads well enough to keep the tonal shifts between broad golf-cart-in-the-pool comedy and somber moments of money woes from resembling the characters' own mood swings. However, the occasional live-wire performance from supporting actresses like Rebel Wilson (as Wendy's assistant) and Megan Mullally (as a randy dance-competition extension of herself) can't detract from the sitcom-shallow observations about the compromises it takes to make adult relationships work.
And before we know it, there's a veritable flood of breaking water that sees every character in the same hospital on the same night, even those who no longer have a baby of their own to welcome into the world. Let's face it, though: happy endings don't deliver themselves, and for anyone drawn in by all those famous faces on the poster, "Expecting" should deliver exactly what they've come to expect over these past few years.