'The Switch' Gestates a Few Laughs
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) has a plan, and fairly bubbles with enthusiasm. She's going to have a baby, singlehood be damned. Her friend Wally (Jason Bateman), upon hearing this, percolates with pessimism. "I don't need a man to have a baby," she notes with sunshiny see-it-through spirit. "Technically, you do," he notes with dour directness. Based on, and brightened up from "The Baster," a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides ("The Virgin Suicides," "Middlesex"), "The Switch" is a better-than-you-feared example of the recent comedies revolving around reproduction, and if it isn't as good as Judd Apatow's "Knocked Up," it is, at the very least, far better than that three-wheeled baby buggy of a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, "The Back-up Plan," based on roughly the same concerns.
As Kassie proceeds with her plan, including a big insemination party where she'll adjourn to a dark room to have the sperm of donor Roland (Patrick Wilson) placed in, ahem, the soil of her garden, Wally's doubts and dark disapproval grow, propelled, in no small part, by the unrequited, unspoken feelings he has for Kassie. Getting liquored up at the insemination party, Wally boozily fiddles and futzes with the container of Roland's genetic material and accidentally destroys it. Where can he find a replacement amount of genetic material on such short notice? To the drunken Wally, right before he blacks out, the answer is close at hand, and just below his belt line ...
Flashing forward seven years, Kassie returns from the heartland where she escaped to raise her son far from New York, and reaches out to her old friend Wally. Her son, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), is a dark-haired, brainy, moody brooder who has a lot more in common with Wally than the ostensible dad Roland. Watching Sebastian, Wally recalls what, exactly, it was he did so many years ago and is struck with the realization that a past moment of drunkenness has long-ranging implications. And so, the rest of "The Switch" is devoted to revelations and relationship-mending and personal growth moments we can all see coming but that still charm.
A big part of that charm is Bateman. Wally's an over-thinker and an under-feeler, a spiritual twin (although both characters would shudder at the phrase "spiritual") to Michael Bluth from "Arrested Development." Wally can, over the first glass of wine on a date, extrapolate 20 years of unhappiness moving forward from that point in one unbroken, date-dooming monologue he can't help but speak out loud. Bateman also gets scenes with his boss, Leonard, played by Jeff Goldblum, and at a certain point, Goldblum's loopy riffs on all manner of subjects -- sociobiology, exercise, mating, dating and relating -- become pleasures unto themselves.
And Bateman's scenes with Robinson also pull you in. ("Do you want to talk about your new school?" "Why?" "Because you're a kid; there's nothing else to talk about.") Robinson is wide-eyed and precocious, but he never feels forced or fake, and it's a welcome note in a film that could have become cloying and cheap. Ironically, Aniston's given the least to do among the leads -- Eugenides' story is from Wally's point of view, and so is the film -- but she acquits herself nobly, even if the filmmakers might be accused of trading on Aniston's familiarity to make up for a thinly written role.
Screenwriter Allan Loeb gave us the overlooked "Things We Lost in the Fire" and the overhyped "21," and he gently blunts the cutting arc of Eugenides' original story even as he extends it. (In the original tale, Wally and Kassie were lovers long ago, and she'd had an abortion when he got her pregnant; this, obviously, does not make it to the silver screen.) But they're also not squeamish about what love feels like and what love takes -- and a scene where Wally has to help a hurt, humiliated Sebastian deal with a lice outbreak while Kassie tries to long-distance micromanage by cell phone, is a tender-but-true depiction of the challenges and rewards of growing up enough to be a parent, not because you decide to, but, rather, because you have no choice in the matter.
Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck rein in their style from their previous film, the goofy figure-skating spoof "Blades of Glory," and shoot with an eye for both warm shots and cold moments. (When Wally tries to man up to pay the piper, you feel for him even as you're laughing.) Life, as it has been said, is what happens when you're making other plans. The films gets that, but it also understands that when you're making a comedy, feeling is more important than frenzy -- and thanks to Bateman's truly winning performance as a bit of a loser, "The Switch" manages to earn our laughter and our respect in equal measure.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.