Appellate Judge Tom Becker is jonesing for the "Off-Switch."
The most unexpected comedy ever conceived.
It's good to be king, sometimes. It's also good to be Jason Bateman. Sometimes.
This is not one of those times.
Bateman's a rarity. He went from cute-kid TV star to cute-adolescent TV star, kicked around for a while in his 20s doing overall undistinguished films, TV, and TV films, and then bounced back into prominence with a critically acclaimed TV show (Arrested Development). All of a sudden, he's working with cool kids like Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and George Clooney, and turning up in prestige films like Juno and Up in the Air.
But Bateman, with his comfortable, witty everyguy persona and tabloid-free private life, was still flying a bit under the radar, his work beyond Arrested Development being in supporting roles.
So someone got the idea, and a good idea it was, to give Bateman a starring vehicle. Unfortunately, the good ideas ended there. Paired with inexplicable rom-com goddess Jennifer Aniston, Bateman is swamped by The Switch, a laboriously unfunny twit-com about artificial insemination.
Facts of the Case
Wally and Kassie are successful young New Yorkers and best friends. We know they're successful because they live in apartments the size of plantations, and we know they're best friends because they iterate that phrase every 30 or so seconds. They dated briefly, but since Wally is a mess of neuroses and Kassie has the personality of a flyswatter, it didn't work out. Wally now serves as Kassie's sounding board and eunuch, even though he secretly pines for her.
Out of the blue, 30-something career-woman Kassie decides her fertility is about to expire. Rather than hunt down a man who will worship her wealthy and attractive self, she opts for DIY artificial insemination and pays a handsome, married stranger named Roland (Patrick Wilson, Lakeview Terrace) to be her donor.
Hip chick that she is, she throws herself an insemination party, inviting Wally and all the women in New York who think Sex and the City is actually a documentary about their lives. Kassie wears a fertility goddess headband. Roland wears Viking horns and strokes himself into a plastic cup. Wally gets blotto drunk and spills the cup into the bathroom sink. Polluted but resourceful, Wally finds a fetching magazine photo of Diane Sawyer and, unbeknownst the inebriated, baster-worshipping crowd outside the bathroom, uses the image of Mrs. Mike Nichols to get himself going, refilling Kassie's cup. So drunk is Wally, that he actually forgets the whole, ugly incident.
Apparently, Kassie had nothing to worry about in the fertility department, as she's soon pregnant from this single dose of Wally juice, which she still believes is Roland juice. She moves away, and then returns seven years later with moppet Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), who, like Wally, is a mess of neuroses. Slowly, "Uncle" Wally, still blacked out about that old wank-and-switch episode, starts to bond with the boy, and it looks like they all might settle in as one bit happy platonic family.
But there's a big, handsome, grinning cloud on the horizon: the newly divorced Roland, who wants to get to know "his" son—and is pretty much liking Kassie too.
The Switch is less notable for what it is than for what it seems to want to be. It's like a Woody Allen neurotic-in-New-York movie. Only it's not. It's like a Judd Apatow slightly raunchy mancentric chick flick. Only it's not. It's like About a Boy. Only it's not. It's like a Jason Reitman film about disparate souls finding connection. Only it's not.
What it is about, mainly, is the neurotic Wally coming of age past 40 by bonding with his equally neurotic accidental son. This could have worked—young Robinson is certainly game, and Bateman's a pro at playing both funny and heartwarming—if the writers hadn't tried so hard to quirk up the kid. Young Sebastian isn't just neurotic, he's a neurotic prodigy. At 6, he's reading up on complicated diseases he thinks he suffers from. He's environmentally aware, to the point that he won't eat duck because of atrocities committed on the Fowl Farm. He rails against stray animal kill shelters. If he were a 13-year-old, this might make sense, but all this complex thinking and worldliness makes him almost nothing like an actual 6-year-old child and everything like a screenwriter's invention. There's no suggestion that Kassie even understands half of what the kid's talking about—early in the film, she gives Wally a purebred Airedale puppy, so Sebastian's clearly not learning about kill shelters from her—so the joke is that these are Wally's screwy genes at play, even though Wally doesn't relate to much of this precociousness either.
While all this might make for an interesting nature vs. nurture discussion—is hypochondria really an inherited trait?—it hobbles what should be the heart of the film. When Sebastian's allowed to act like something approximating a 6-year-old—confiding in Wally about a bully who's bothering him, or enduring a lice infestation (which Wally tends to)—The Switch comes close to being charming.
But these precious moments are few, and they don't come close to compensating for the overriding smutty-joke premise, the too-easily resolved romantic tribulation, and the generally lame pay-cable sitcom-trendy writing. The whole sperm-swap business is just icky and becomes less appetizing the more you actually think about it. It also robs the film of the chance to be "family friendly" in that Kramer vs. Kramer way.
Aniston and Bateman might be friends in real life, but onscreen, they generate less sexual chemistry than Buzz Lightyear and Mr. Potato Head. They spend almost the whole film interacting like brother and sister, so when an "intimate move" is finally made, it feels like something out of Caligula.
Poor Roland, so shiny and noble when we first see him, is reduced to grinning, clueless chump in the later scenes so that Bateman can default his way across the finish line. The dual conceits that Wally not only has no memory of jiggering with the sperm cup—leading to an idiotic revelation—and that he's actually conflicted about his feelings for Kassie—another idiotic revelation—just make this even harder to stomach.
Bateman's a fine actor, has great timing and all that, but he doesn't seem to have a real handle on the clueless castrati he's called upon to play here. His banter with Aniston is less-than sparkling, and he fades away during his scenes with an over-reaching Jeff Goldblum as his requisite best friend. Bateman does get one great scene: a monologue during an initially promising but ultimately disastrous blind date, in which a "what if we got married right now just for laughs" joke devolves into a dark and bitter rumination on what is quite possibly Wally's future.
What to do with Jennifer Aniston? She's attractive, she's pleasant, she's America's Sweetheart, but the closest she's come to appearing in an interesting movie was Leprechaun. Her presence in The Switch is negligible—this is Wally's story, and Kassie's a mere supporting player—but she's top-lined, so this is, technically, a Jennifer Aniston Movie. Or Another Jennifer Aniston Movie, another safe, sitcom-ish vehicle, the kind of mediocre film she makes time and again, and yet is still considered a major star. I don't get it. Is the memory of Rachel Green so hallowed that she's going to play this part ad infinitum and the movie-going public is expected to pay tribute? Are we still playing nice because of that whole Brad and Angelina thing? She was dumped by a movie star, she's not a presidential widow or something. We've put up with the flustered, cute girl bit for so long, doesn't she owe us something more? Maybe gain a few pounds, muss up her hair, and play a serial killer or a prison guard? Or something controversial—aren't we due for a remake of The Night Porter? She could play the Dirk Bogarde role. Or would that be too much like The Reader?
Sorry if I've digressed, but digressing is really the only way to get through The Switch.
The disc? It's Blu, it's recent, so it looks and sounds fine. It's not exactly a visual and audial feast, but it's a well-rendered transfer. While we're spared a commentary, we do get a featurette ("The Switch Conceived") that hits all the expected "making of" notes, bloopers (the highlight of the disc), deleted scenes, and an alternate ending that presents New York City as a rustic suburb. In case you're wondering why this wealth of additional footage wasn't used, directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck are on hand with introductions.
The Switch is a misguided mess with too few bright spots. Unfunny comedy, unaffecting drama, unappealing characters and unappetizing situations. Switch it off.
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