It's difficult to find the right words to describe "Labor Pains," the new Lindsay Lohan comedy that, for a moment, appeared prepped for theatrical release before heading to ABC Family. "Terrible" certainly leaps to mind, as does the eternal question, "Why?" But circumstances -- this is the first lead role Lohan has had on any screen not devoted to excavating celebrity wreckage in many moons -- seem to call for something more. Also, Cheryl Hines costars, and she is not at all terrible. Unfortunately, her part as best friend is not large enough to serve as life raft for either the film or Lohan.
Granted, the story, written by Stacy Kramer and Lara Shapiro (who also directs), offers an Olympian task for any star, involving as it does large and clunky leaps of logic over a cliche-riddled narrative landscape. Lohan plays Thea, a rather beleaguered young woman whose parents have died, forcing her to drop out of college and support her high school aged sister, Emma, a throwaway role with which Bridgit Mendler does the very best she can. Thea works as a secretary for a small publishing company tyrant, Jerry, (an overwrought Chris Parnell) who has a horrible little dog that he worships in the way that people in these sorts of movies worship horrible little dogs.
The company, which seems to exist outside the crisis afflicting its industry, is run by all sorts of uninteresting eccentrics (including one played, heaven help us, by Willie Garson, so great as Stanford on "Sex and the City") who treat Thea and her colleague Lisa (Hines) as if "Nine to Five," much less "The Second Sex," had never been written.
In another era-bending twist, Thea and Lisa meet regularly in the ladies room to smoke and gossip. When Jerry overhears Thea saying she hates him, he threatens to fire her. So Thea does the only reasonable thing a person could do in such a situation -- she tells him she's pregnant. (Never mind that he just two seconds before saw her smoking.) Conveniently informed by the legal department that firing a pregnant woman is not a good idea, Jerry keeps her on. So Thea, whose understanding of pregnancy is shockingly limited (yes, yes, she dropped out of college, but did she never take a health class? Or use the Internet?) has to fake it. Suddenly, everyone starts treating Thea like a queen -- the landlord stops demanding rent, the publishing staff treats her with newfound gentleness and respect, a man gives her a seat on the bus. When Jerry exits to tend to his ailing dog, his nice brother Nick (Luke Kirby) takes over, quickly agreeing to publish a book on motherhood, which, of course, leads to a big promotion and spacious office for Thea.
This was just about the only thing about "Labor Pains" that made me laugh out loud.
At this point, the plot contrivances come at you so fast it's hard to keep up -- after reading one manuscript, Thea is transformed to a terrific editor while said manuscript takes six weeks to go from first author meeting to first author reading. There are romantic complications and sibling complications but mostly there's Thea becoming addicted to how great her life is now that she's "pregnant." "I'm better pregnant," she wails at one point, shamelessly echoing similar sentiments by Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie ("I was a better man as a woman," etc.) and doing herself no favors in the process.
A stronger performance by Lohan, who proved in "Freaky Friday" that she is capable of suspending our collective disbelief, might have made "Labor Pains" less arduous to watch. But here she teeters through scene after scene, announcing her lines in varying degrees of confusion (eyes wide) and exasperation (eyes wider). Instead of exploring Thea's vulnerability, which could have injected a little pathos into the thing, it all becomes so ridiculous that by the time the (predictable) climax occurs, you're just grateful the ordeal is over.
This may be how many of us feel after an actual pregnancy, but it's not a good sign for a comedy or a comeback.
Where: ABC Family
When: 8 p.m. Sunday