A 'Back-up Plan'? See Another Movie
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
To prep for "The Back-up Plan," shed all notions of how grown-ups behave in the real world. But, you might retort, the movie's only a romantic comedy, a showcase for Jennifer Lopez and Aussie heartthrob Alex O'Loughlin, not some kitchen-sink drama with people like us who wrestle with hard-core dilemmas. Fair enough. But, really, how many IQ points must you drop to get off on the unfunny antics of a privileged pair of pretty Peter Pans in their Neverland playpens?
This tepid, endless excursion into rom-com lowlands rides largely on Lopez's iconic cheekbones and famous derriere, as well as O'Loughlin's handsome chest, bared at every opportunity. "The Back-up Plan" marries romance-novel fluff with made-for-TV movies designed to satisfy distaff fantasies. Though salted with obligatory vulgarity, this flat-footed comedy sticks to the kind of sanitized, prepubescent sex Doris Day and Rock Hudson played at in the '60s.
Internet hotshot turned pet-shop owner Zoe (Lopez) has dated "hundreds" of men and never found The One. Her soulful little pug, its useless back legs supported in a colorfully decorated wagon, trundles after her every move. (The filmmakers find its handicapped perambulations so adorable that this canine cutie approaches co-star status.) But dog, doting gram (Linda Lavin), Eve Arden-like BFF (Michaela Watkins, providing some rare laughs), and thriving business just aren't enough for this greedy singleton. Zoe yearns for a baby bump. So she hoists herself into the stirrups to get artificially inseminated, displaying the profound spiritual joy of a girl copping a pair of coveted Manolo Blahniks. (Someone said "The Back-up Plan" comes from the same planet as "Sex and the City," sans the sex!)
Moments after someone's sperm has hit the spot, Zoe runs into The One, a good-looking cheese-maker/farmer who dreams of starting a "sustainable gourmet shop." (No kidding, he's blood brother to John Corbett, Carrie Bradshaw's sensitive furniture-making manly man!) Lopez and O'Loughlin, erstwhile "Moonlight" vampire, meet so cute it makes your teeth hurt, competing for the same cab in a Manhattan downpour. Then director Alan Poul ("Six Feet Under," "Big Love") scrambles to find ways to mine romance and chuckles out of falling in love with a hapless guy just after getting knocked up, and to manufacture sufficient emotional speed bumps to stretch "The Back-up Plan" from sitcom episode to movie-length. It doesn't help that the big moments in the rubber-band affair are punctuated by dispiritingly goopy love songs that leave you feeling swaddled in tofu. (Lopez's "What Is Love?" is no exception.)
Lopez and O'Loughlin strike nary a sexual spark, so the couple's high jinks (a candlelit dinner in a community garden ends in flames, flung dirt and a hose fight) and couplings (doing the nasty on a wooden table in his cheese barn) come off like contrived child's play. Despite the blood-smeared tube her jokester gynecologist (Robert Klein, very genial) pulls out of pregnant Zoe's vagina -- Stan faints, of course -- these lovers come off as Peter Pan and Wendy, living an eternal, hormone-free childhood.
At 40, Lopez still totters about like a preteen in too-high heels, glimmering sweetly at the camera in little-girl imitations of happy and sad. Once upon a time, before pap like "Maid in Manhattan" and "The Wedding Planner," this promising actress projected more than stunning good looks (now turned increasingly bland); remember sexy Karen Sisco in "Out of Sight"?
The movie's funniest and most outré scene comes via a living-room childbirth. The highly diverse members of Zoe's Single and Proud support group drum and chant while a no-nonsense gay lady writhes and barks her way through labor in a plastic swimming pool. Parents-to-be Zoe and Stan clutch each other in horror as someone marvels at how incredibly wide a woman's body can open. The morning-after shot is priceless: the two shell-shocked yuppies stumble toward the camera, looking like survivors of a slasher movie.
"The Back-up Plan" made me think fondly of "Monkey Business," one of Howard Hawks' smart, fall-down-funny screwball comedies. Married couple Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers have aged into a lackluster, sexless relationship; she plays mother to his absent-minded professor. A fountain of youth serum regresses them to the libidinous, uninhibited behaviors of their teens and younger, until it seems Grant has become an infant that Rogers will have to raise, a cracked mirror of what their adult relationship had become. Outrageous premise, but what's so exhilarating about this classic is its comedic drive toward the restoration of Shakespearean balance, sexually and every other way, between the sexes. (Think "Midsummer Night's Dream.")
In contrast, "The Back-up Plan" and too many other dumb contemporary romantic comedies promise that pretty people like Zoe and Stan, soul mates and prospective mommies and daddies, never really have to grow up. So where's the payoff (laff- and wisdom-wise) if we end up where we began, in a permanent state of arrested development?
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.