A scriptwriter and his agenting wife try every which way to produce a sprig in the stillborn “Maybe Baby,” a wannabe romantic comedy with miscast leads and a script in desperate need of a good editor. British writer-comedian Ben Elton’s first stab at direction scores OK on the tech side but fatally lacks the charm and chemistry needed to make this most fragile of genres take flight and connect at an emotional level. Powered by a big ad-pub campaign in the U.K., pic may score reasonable initial returns but looks to have a longer gestation on rental. Local reviews have largely been scathing.
Elton has yet to learn that in movies, unlike in standup or novels, self-consciously smart dialogue isn’t enough on its own. Media-set comedies written by media insiders rarely translate well to the bigscreen unless directed by a pro helmer with a feel for emotional nuance and cast with leads who can bounce the material beyond its setting, as in “Notting Hill,” written by Elton’s former writing partner Richard Curtis.
As the two leads, Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson are perfectly reliable when it comes to physical comedy — one of the film’s funniest sections is the final recap montage — but seem perilously out of their depth in dialogue-driven moments, with little chemistry and insufficient star power. Characters remain obstinately behind a glass screen of the script’s own construction. Verbally clever? Often. Emotionally engaging? No way, baby.
In an opening recalling the identically themed, far better developed Norwegian pic “StorkStaring Mad” (1994), Sam Bell (Laurie) is faster than a rapid-response unit whenever ovulating wife Lucy (Richardson) phones him that “my eggs are done. Screw me — now!” But despite all the couple’s athleticism, which includes copulating outside a church wedding, Lucy’s eggs stubbornly fail to fertilize.
Meanwhile, Sam, a BBC-TV commissioning editor who’s under pressure from the corporation’s wonderboy head (Matthew Macfadyen), decides his future lies in scriptwriting. Struggling from writer’s block, he finally alights on the idea of dramatizing his life. Surreptitiously, he steals gobs of dialogue from the unaware Lucy and later plunders her girlish diary for the “female perspective.” Greenlighted by the Beeb, the film goes into production alongside Sam and Lucy’s continuing attempts to produce a child.
Given that the scriptwriting idea doesn’t emerge for half an hour, and most of the development is crammed into the final reels, the movie has to get by for a large amount of the running time on its dialogue and the charm of its leads. With both coming up short, and the jokes about sperm count and hormone injections wearing thin, most of the entertainment value comes from sitcomish cameos and supports: Rowan Atkinson as a leering obstetrician, Joanna Lumley and Dawn French on autopilot as Lucy’s yah-yah boss and a chummy Australian nurse, and, especially, Tom Hollander in a funny turn as a foul-mouthed, Brit-hating Scottish director (“My shite shits on your shite”) assigned to direct Sam’s script.
In the voiceovers by the two leads, pic retains some of the flavor of Elton’s novel, “Inconceivable,” which is structured as alternating first-person accounts. Wisely, he’s cut back on much of the BBC-insider material that filled the novel, though not by enough. By satirizing modern management styles and the crassness of present-day TV, Elton simply muddles the focus. The idea probably got a big laugh at script meetings — especially because the pic is co-funded by the Beeb — but unfortunately is neither very original nor especially funny, and simply gets in the way.
Laurie, best known for his partnership with Stephen Fry (“Jeeves and Wooster”), makes a likable Sam but lacks leading-man charisma. Richardson, though stunningly sexy throughout in Anna Shepherd’s sleek costumes, is fine at the physical stuff but can’t get her mouth round comic dialogue. It’s a pairing that defiantly refuses to click.
Among the supports, James Purefoy has a Byronic presence as one of Lucy’s clients who sets her hyped-up hormones jangling, but his role and the subplot are never properly integrated into the script. Adrian Lester is bland as Sam’s patient BBC colleague. Emma Thompson makes a brief appearance as a New Age health freak.
Technical credits are pro rather than distinguished. Roger Lanser’s lensing is mostly well appointed, Peter Hollywood’s cutting mobile and Colin Towns’ bright/romantic score works overtime.