The only way to approach the subject of trying -- and trying and trying and trying -- to conceive a child is to do it for laughs. Couples who desperately want a child might not find the subject so funny. By the same token, though, how many of us find it pleasant to spend much time with people for whom the inability to conceive a child is the end of the world? Bitter disappointment and complicated feelings are understandable. But since when is conceiving more important than actual living?
British comedy writer Ben Elton, a co-writer of the outstandingly funny "Blackadder" series, tackles that rhetorical question in his directorial debut, "Maybe Baby," and it's only fair to point out that his heart is in the right place. Sam Bell (Hugh Laurie) and his wife, Lucy (Joely Richardson), are a well-heeled London couple whose lives are complete except for the pitter-patter of little feet. They embark on the nerve-wracking and humiliating experience of trying to conceive, starting with the "I'm ovulating right now get home this minute" stage and eventually progressing to the invasive and intrinsically unfunny rituals required for in-vitro fertilization.
The problem with this romantic comedy is that although it eventually winds its way to a conclusion that feels right, it takes too many convoluted steps to get there. The writing feels stagy and indistinct, and there are times when you simply want to shake the lead characters. Sam has a good job with the BBC, but he's really a failed writer; he'd like to write a screenplay about his and Lucy's experience trying to have a baby, but Lucy won't hear of it -- she doesn't want such personal matters aired in public.
By the end of the movie, both characters, their nerves frayed from being so desperate to spawn, have made numerous mistakes that could potentially damage the relationship. Sam does something so slimy it practically breaks faith with the audience. Even so, it gets tougher and tougher to sympathize with Lucy, whose whole sense of self-worth seems to be wrapped up in the idea of having a child. She's so busy scribbling soppy observations into her diary ("I caught myself looking at baby clothes again today"), that you start to think of her as a womb with a brain attached as an afterthought. That may sound harsh, but it's not all that different from the way she seems to view herself.
"Maybe Baby" is a tough case, because its highly capable cast seems to have been let down by poor writing. Every single actor here -- from Laurie and Richardson to Joanna Lumley to Adrian Lester, who's been terrific in pictures like Kenneth Branagh's "Love's Labour's Lost" and David Kane's "Born Romantic" (which, unfortunately, hasn't been released in this country) -- has done much better work elsewhere. The gags here mostly feel tired and recycled and gassily heartwarming. Many of them just fall flat: When Lester, as a co-worker and close friend of Sam's who has also recently become a father, becomes irritated with Sam's fixation on the inadequacy of his own sperm, he mutters, "Sperm is like flatulence. It's different when it's your own." Whatever that's supposed to mean.
The movie does feature one hilarious bit: The idea of casting Rowan Atkinson as a gynecologist is nothing short of brilliant, and he doesn't let us down on the execution. Squirting a sploodge of lubricating jelly onto a speculum as if it were toothpaste; rooting around in Lucy's nether regions with the intense concentration of Indiana Jones on an archaeological dig; informing Lucy that things aren't so bad after all, and she'd really be in trouble if he'd found "a cyst the size of Pavarotti on your ute": Atkinson's two all-too-brief appearances are pure pleasure.
But Elton manages to botch even these: In Atkinson's first scene, Lucy's internal monologue is layered over the visuals, just in case we can't already imagine what she's thinking with that cartoonishly earnest, oddball face staring down her rain barrel. Those voice-overs break Atkinson's rhythm and reinforce Lucy's self-absorption: There's no way that her rambling inner thoughts could be even half as funny as Atkinson's merest eyebrow twitch.
And that's just one way "Maybe Baby" sabotages itself by trying too hard. The worst of it is that "Maybe Baby" feels very much like an Englishman's attempt to make a Nora Ephron movie, all warm and squishy in a decidedly American way. English humor is its own peculiar and wonderful beast, as Elton, more than anybody, should know. One American Ephron is bad enough. Do we really need another franchise on the other side of the pond?