What do a serial-killer thriller and a surrogate-pregnancy comedy have in common? The unforgiving advance of time, leading to great panic and momentous life-or-death decisions.
In 88 Minutes, a man gets word that he's about to die in -- you guessed it -- 88 minutes; he freaks out and decides kill the murderer first. In Baby Mama, meanwhile, it's the countdown of a biological clock that leads a career-oriented, edging-40 singleton to splash out a six-figure sum to hire a dubious stranger to grow her kid.
Here's another commonality: Both films are funny -- but only one is meant to be.
88 Minutes opens grimly enough, with some torture porn. It's 1997, and Seattle is threatened by a serial killer with some distinctive techniques: suspending the victims using ropes and carbiners (that's so Northwest outdoorsy!). A man named Jon Forster (Neal McDonough) is convicted, largely on the testimony of Dr. Jack Gramm, a forensic psychologist.
Scoot ahead to present day: Forster's headed for the gallows, and Dr. Gramm (Al Pacino) is settling in for his regular action-packed day of recovering from a babe-and-booze-soaked evening, haranguing federal agents, sparring with his secretary and wowing dewy college kids with his brilliance.
Thus, it's a sour note when he gets a call from a mystery voice telling him he's got 88 minutes to live. To his credit, Gramm keeps teaching; he doesn't break up the class until the bomb threat comes in.
Nor does the arrogant genius even break a sweat about his impending death until virtually every thriller-movie cliché has been employed against him: near-miss in parking garage, a mugging, a broken cell phone, hit-and-run by masked biker, last night's date turning up dead, apartment set on fire, car blown up, and so on and so on. (Jump through any number of plot holes to safety, I silently urged Gramm, but to no avail.)
88 Minutes is a jumbled mess, ridiculously over-plotted, with about a third of the exposition sidelined to cell-phone chatter. So many red herrings and halfway-to-guilty suspects were presented, I began to think the 88-minutes-run-for-your-life-to-this-one-room gambit was an elaborate ruse to get the clearly over-scheduled doctor to his surprise party on time. No such luck -- stay tuned for a deeply unsatisfying law-and-disorder conclusion.
The pleasures here are few: Pacino is in pop-eyed, fright-wig mode, and though we all die little inside when this actor stoops to this dreck, he's admittedly fun to watch. For the ooglers out there, director Jon Avnet has a tendency to shoot all the film's women as pornish, scantily dressed body-part pieces. And the comic-book dialogue ("Tick tock, doc ... tick tock"), absurd plot devices and Gramm's bachelor-pad fortress are good for a few unintended laughs.
The crises are domestic in Michael McCuller's comedy Baby Mama, which toggles between wry and easy laughs. Urbane businesswoman Kate (Tina Fey) desperately wants a baby, and with no man and an iffy uterus, she opts to hire a surrogate. (If you missed Biology in the 21st Century, that's a Kate egg paired with donor sperm, and relocated to another woman's womb.)
Kate's hired incubator is Angie (Amy Poehler), a regular gal from the sticks, with a whiff of Jerry Springer about her: Dr. Pepper, karaoke, a disdain for Lamaze yoga and a dumbass boyfriend named Carl (Dax Shepard). When Carl boots her, Angie comes to live with Kate -- and the two begin their comically uneasy shared pregnancy.
Baby Mama flirts with, but wisely avoids probing too deeply into the somewhat controversial issue of surrogates. McCuller, a former Saturday Night Live writer who also penned the script, does tip his hat to the classism of the scheme -- wealthy women paying poorer women to bear their children -- and many of the obvious jokes pit the educated, cultured Kate against the deep-fried Angie. But if Angie is laughably dim, Kate is an easy-to-mock control freak.
Fans of Fey -- and they are legion -- will enjoy her role: Kate is intelligent, quick-witted, a goodhearted nerd hiding behind stylish smart-girl glasses. I'm not a regular watcher of SNL, so I've only seen Poehler in small cameo roles. But I thoroughly enjoyed her in this film. Her infectious brashness tempered with insecurity made Angie more than just a hick caricature, and Poehler has a great gift for comic body language. (My little crush on Poehler doubled this week when I read the actress ate a certain breakfast cereal simply because Omar on The Wire did. In-deed.)
It's clear McCuller likes both characters, and Baby Mama is mostly fair to each woman's unique anxieties about responsibility and opportunity. And points for not writing a film about women that includes a bunch of hysterical breakdowns.
For my tastes, McCuller stumbles when he tries to squeeze what's primarily a buddy movie into the frame of a romantic comedy; he adds a potential Mr. Right for Kate, and reaches for too many tidy wrap-ups in the last act. But then again, nobody wants to end a pregnancy comedy in tears and in court. Starts Fri., April 25.