If there were a scale for measuring how much of a movie’s substance was pure plastic, Nine Months, the new maternity comedy directed by Chris Columbus (Mrs. Doubtfire), would surely register dangerously high polymer levels. The movie is about a smug San Francisco yuppie, Samuel (Hugh Grant), who is thrown into a tizzy when his girlfriend of five years, the beautiful and adoring Rebecca (Julianne Moore), announces that she has accidentally become pregnant. Though the two aren’t married, she wants to keep the baby, and Samuel, a doting if naggingly contained fellow — he’s a child psychiatrist who’s unnerved by kids — begins to prepare for fatherhood. His heart isn’t in it, though. He’s terrified of starting a family (that is, of burying his freedom under a lifetime of pesky responsibility), and the movie takes the form of a series of rude comic shocks administered to our hero, until he snaps out of his selfishness.
Nine Months presents itself as an earnest ”lifestyle” comedy, but the movie is cobbled together out of clichés (the mom-to-be as radiantly centered baby machine, the dad as bumbling wreck), and it’s punctuated by raucous episodes of cartoon farce: pummeling fights and shouting matches, Robin Williams as a daffy Russian obstetrician (he speaks in funny accent, no?). Tom Arnold, looking as if he’d just swallowed Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, shows up as a loudmouth schmo who adores his three kids; the movie practically whacks you over the head with his scruffy, life-affirming, family-guy normality. Yet Nine Months, for all its slapdash second-rateness, is carried along by the personalities of its stars — in particular, by Grant. As it turns out, his recent, tabloid-ready embarrassment may be the most perversely lucky career break a celebrity ever got.
Has there ever been an actor who combined charm and squishy-souled reticence the way that Grant does? He’s an amazingly ingratiating performer, but when he smiles, the oddest thing happens: His top lip pushes up, William Buckley-style, exposing a luminous flash of teeth, yet the corners of his mouth curl into a frown, as if he couldn’t quite decide whether to give in to all this shiny-happy-feeling business. That emotional ambivalence is mirrored in the eyes that glow yet crinkle at the corners, in the long flat planes of his cheeks, which seem to tug his entire face downward. He’s a new screen type: a devil-may-care fusspot, sexy in his very repression.
The embarrassment — the joke — of Grant’s arrest was that this painfully self-effacing British charmer, this gentleman, had been caught with his pants down, and I went into Nine Months expecting to catch a few coincidental echoes of the scandal. The truth is that Grant’s little escapade in sleazeville dovetails with the movie in a far more telling way. Just as the gentleman turned out to have a secret, raffish side, Grant, in Nine Months, is playing a guy who, for all his polite ardor, is fundamentally selfish, a slick jerk who can’t make up his mind to join the rest of the domesticated world. The scandal reinforces the comedy of what we see on screen: Hugh Grant as a charming brat of insecurity who’s in dire need of growing up. Ultimately, what happened to Grant could even liberate him from the recessive, bashful-angel persona that had already grown precious in his last picture, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain.
Early on, there’s a nice moment when Samuel informs Rebecca that he’s decided he really wants to have the baby. He only half means it — but he’s so in love with her he can’t say no. And Julianne Moore makes it easy to see why he’d feel that way. This supremely vibrant actress doesn’t let herself disappear inside a saintly, underwritten role. She has the best bit in the film: Rebecca doing a sweet bedroom striptease to ”Let’s Get It On” and then stopping short when she feels the baby kick. What’s delightful is the way Moore makes Rebecca’s awestruck reaction even more amorous than her playful attempt at seduction. Still, for every moment like that, there are a dozen more mired in formula. Nine Months is the kind of movie in which Samuel’s obsession with his Porsche passes for character development; in which Jeff Goldblum, as an acerbic stud, delivers an amusing speech about how dull people become when they have kids and then spends the rest of the movie atoning for it. In the last third, Columbus abandons all pretense to light comedy, pulling out the stops in a freewheeling delivery-room climax that’s the apotheosis of every panicky maternity episode you ever saw on a sitcom. On its own fractious terms, the scene is very funny — it’s as violent a piece of slapstick choregraphy as anything in Home Alone — but there’s something a little disquieting about a movie that celebrates birth by staging it as an epic demolition derby. B-