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Dumb and happy about it: (l-r) Poehler and Shepard in Baby Mama.

A Real Mother

By Laura Leon

Baby Mama

Directed by Michael McCullers

Baby Mama seemed like it would be the kind of movie that blows all its funny business in the relentless ad campaign leading up to its premiere. Career gal Kate (Tina Fey) can’t get pregnant, so she hires white-trash Angie (Amy Poehler) to be a surrogate. Think Odd Couple blended with television’s A Baby Story, and you pretty much get the picture.

The good news is that there is plenty more to laugh at than what’s been rammed down our throats. The juxtaposition of Kate’s prim, ultra-neatnik tendencies with Angie’s pop-guzzling, gum-smacking persona is mined for all its worth, so it’s helpful that Poehler, in particular, is so fearless a comedic actress. The sight of her, complete with baby bump, grinding her bootie into her dance partner is a hilarious shocker. For her turn, Fey simply channels Mary Richards. She works just as well off Poehler as she does off Steve Martin, who nearly steals the movie as Kate’s new-agey, pony-tailed boss at Round Earth, a sort of Whole Foods-type enterprise. This is a guy who likes to regale the common folk with tales of how he roasted pine nuts at the foot of a volcano, and rewards underlings with the chance to touch foreheads for five uninterrupted minutes. The movie is also helped along by solid performances from Greg Kinnear, playing Kate’s love interest; Sigourney Weaver, as the forever-fertile entrepreneur behind the surrogacy firm Kate chooses; and Dax Shepherd, as Angie’s redneck common law hubbie. He’s the kind of guy who, when Angie dumps him, delivers this coup d’etat: “I’m gonna bang all your friends! Consider them banged!”

So, there is a lot to laugh about in Baby Mama, and yet, it’s something of a disappointment. It’s refreshing to see a movie that in some small way resembles the realities and concerns of a working woman, and Fey is, if nothing else, the personification of a likeable Everywoman. However, the real tension of the plot comes from pitting Kate’s upward mobility against Angie’s lower-class roots, and writer-director Michael McCullers seems not to want to tap that root, no matter how many times they come close to exposing it. Poehler pushes the envelope, making us party to Angie’s gross habits, and even giving us cause to agree with her beliefs, such as when she refers to Kate’s unappetizing-looking organic fare as “food for rich people who hate themselves.” But the movie hangs back when it could be skewering perceptions about fertility, the lengths to which people will go to perpetuate their DNA, and what really makes a good parent. The result is a crucial loss of bite.

Baby Mama ends on an obvious happy note, albeit a completely unbelievable one. The idea that motherhood in and of itself unites women from disparate backgrounds, with divergent tastes, and transcends what had been a prickly relationship fraught with questions about status and class, into that of BFFs is just plain stupid. Just as bad, it waters down what little satirical juice the movie, quite thankfully, had.

Confidence Man

The Counterfeiters

Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky

The problem with dramatizing a story set in the middle of the Holocaust is one of proportion: How do you bring some small corner of this historic tragedy to dramatic life without trivializing the overwhelming nature of the tragedy?

Director Stefan Ruzowitzky gets it exactly right in this Oscar-winning drama, which tells the true story of a small group of Jewish counterfeiters pressed into service by the Nazis to replicate British and U.S. currencies. The straightforward way he accomplishes this is by letting us immediately know that the lead character, master counterfeiter Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (Karl Markovics), survives the war. (The film is told in flashback.) That simple twist keeps the audience from being sucked into the will-he-or-won’t-he-survive question, which would engender a feeling of suspense that would take the focus off the overall horror.

More interestingly, the film’s intense drama is found in the moral dilemmas faced by Sorowitsch and his fellow prisoners. They’re kept separate from the rest of the concentration camp inmates, and treated relatively well. (This means they aren’t worked, literally, to death.) This is a source of pain for some; not so much for others. The work that keeps them alive—counterfeiting—supports the German war effort, and may even be prolonging the war. Again, this is more of a problem for some than others.

Sorowitsch is both artist and philistine, kowtowing supplicant and brave fighter. Even before the war, his politics are shown to be pure self-preservation—he barely conceals his contempt for his fellow Jews. A shrewd judge of human nature, he knows exactly how to flatter his captors enough to get what he wants, but not so much that he violates his own (thief’s) code of ethics. His relationships with a self-righteous Communist idealist (August Diehl) and the slimy SS commandant (David Striesow) are telling: He respects but is frustrated by the former; he despises, but can do business with, the latter. Markovics, whose technique is spare, is compelling in the role.

In the end, obviously, the Nazi scheme to flood the world with fake dollars and pounds, thus crashing their enemies’ economies, fails. It was just another pipe dream that gave this supremely delusional regime something to hang hope on—and, ironically, allowed a handful of skilled Jewish craftsmen to survive the Holocaust.

—Shawn Stone


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