Thursday, August 19, 2010

No switch for Aniston, just another romcom

The Switch is an innocuous bit of summer fluff in which Jennifer Aniston continues to defend her title as queen of the contrived romcom. Don’t believe me: Check out Aniston’s recent output, movies such as The Bounty Hunter, Love Happens or He’s Just Not That Into You. The Switch represents a definite improvement over some of Aniston's worst efforts, but still fails to hit the bull's-eye.

It definitely helps that Aniston receives an assist from Jason Bateman, an actor of proven comic chops. Also on hand is a badly underutilized supporting cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis and Patrick Wilson.

As is the case with many rom-coms, The Switch feels a bit predigested. Sensitive piano music cues us to those moments when we’re supposed to feel something, and the movie’s arc follows a familiar trajectory: Two good friends must find their way to a romantic conclusion that arrives amid a flurry of bromides about the wondrous ways in which lasting connections are formed.

Of course, there’s a hook. As much as stars, romantic comedies need hooks, the twist that tricks us into thinking we’re watching something we haven’t seen before.

In this case, the hook involves sperm.

Aniston’s Kassie wants to have a baby. She’s a New York TV producer who hears her biological clock ticking. Kassie won’t allow the lack of a husband to thwart her parental ambitions. She does what any red-blooded heroine of a mildly manipulative romcom would do: She finds a sperm donor (Wilson).

Not content to let matters unfold from there, the script contrives to have Bateman’s neurotic Wally switch his sperm with that belonging to Wilson’s Roland, a smiling, hearty fellow who, unlike Wally, loves the outdoors. Wally, on the other hand, is a hypochondriac, a Woody Allen Lite figure who wallows in indecision.

The great sperm swap occurs at an insemination party staged to celebrate Kassie’s decision to expand the population. (All I can say is that if you receive an invitation to an insemination party, you'd be wise to decline. If you’re not smart enough to do that, at least don’t get wasted.)

Before she gives birth, Kassie leaves town. Seven years pass. Wally remains in a social rut. Offered another job in New York, Kassie returns to Manhattan with her eccentric six-year-old son in tow.

The rest of the movie involves a possible romance between Roland – divorced since his sperm-donating days -- and Kassie, Wally’s inability to tell Kassie the truth about either the origin of the sperm or his feelings for her and the introduction of young Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), Kassie’s son.

It takes a fair amount of jockeying for the script by Allan Loeb (based on a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides) to deal with all this. It's possible that excessive plot-shuffling (along with semen switching) can be blamed for making the movie seem more like a sitcom pilot than a fully enriched comic portrait. This despite the presence of two directors (Josh Gordon and Will Speck), the duo that shared directing chores on Will Ferrell’s Blades of Glory.

With nothing much to do, Goldblum is left to play around with line readings, allowing each bit of dialog to slide from his mouth as if the words were balls tumbling down hill with him racing to catch up. Lewis might as well have stayed home; her role doesn’t rise even to the level of amusing cliche, the acerbic gal pal who offers a steady stream of cynical advice.

Scenes between Bateman and Robinson show promise as the script reveals how much alike they are, and it’s difficult to work up hostility toward a movie that takes a potentially fertile (sorry) subject and turns it into the equivalent of multiplex wallpaper; i.e., another late summer throwaway. And don’t look for Bateman and Aniston to burn up the screen with fresh passion, although Aniston certainly owns the patent on this kind of role. Maybe we should begin to think of her as a Doris Day for the 21st century.

Credit The Switch for acknowledging the sex appeal of TV’s Diane Sawyer (never mind how), offering a few chuckles and drawing on Bateman’s ability effortlessly to shift between glib one-liners and neurotic introspection.

Otherwise, there’s not much to say other than to lament the fact that so many movies these days resemble the sitcoms that for so long were a staple of episodic television.

So here’s the drill: If you see The Switch, laugh on cue, sigh upon request and then return to something equally predictable but less subject to resolution in 101 minutes, our sagging economic fortunes.

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