Saturday, August 21, 2010
I had 40 hours of induced labor and then a C-section and that was more fun than “The Switch” (opened August 20 throughout San Diego).
“The Switch” is a labored comedy about a woman (Jennifer Aniston) who hears her biological clock ticking and decides to have a baby through artificial insemination. So she pays some hunky looking guy (Patrick Wilson) to give her semen. At the insemination party (yes there actually is one) her drunken friend (Jason Bateman) who’s been too timid to admit his love for her accidentally spills the specimen and has to replace it with his own. Hence “the switch.” Then, seven years later, he has to figure out a way to tell her he’s her son’s daddy.
Any comedy that has to work harder on the set up than on the payoff is in trouble, and “The Switch” is in trouble pretty much from square one. The opening thirty or so minutes should have just been a quick pre-title montage, something dispensed with quickly so the film could focus on the real story about the relationships of the three main characters. But the film drags out the gags about artificial insemination for a good thirty minutes before getting on with the rest of the plot.
In assessing the film's flaws, I think you can see most come from its parentage. The co-directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck, had previously done the painfully unfunny “Blades of Glory,” while writer Allan Loeb wrote such merry scripts as “21 Grams” and “Things We Lost in the Fire” (in other words he’s never written comedy). The film does however have at least one impressive piece of pedigree: it’s based on a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides, the award-winning author of “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides.” I haven’t read Eugenides’ story so I don’t know where this adaptation may have failed. But if I had to guess, I would say that the filmmakers spent too much energy and effort on getting the story to its starting point, which is Bateman’s character realizing that the young boy is his son. That is really where the story begins in terms of interest. Everything that comes before should have been dispensed with quickly and efficiently rather than exploited for low humor.
But Gordon and Speck have a TV sitcom mentality. That means they bring the film down to the lowest common denominator, go for obvious gags, and cast the leads with popular comedy TV stars. This lowbrow approach is part of the problem. Eugenides’ story requires a more deft comic sensibility, something closer to social satire than slapstick. In the hands of someone with a more observational sense of humor, maybe these characters could have developed better and the humor could have had a little bite to it. But in the hands of Gordon and Speck, it feels more like a series of empty-headed gags.
“Arrested Development’s” Bateman at least makes an effort to find both the comedy and an emotional core to his character. But Aniston (of “Friends’” fame) never lets us see anything behind the sitcom façade of her character. Her sudden need to have a child never feels real; it just seems the necessary catalyst to get this film in motion. I have never been able to fathom Aniston’s popularity. She has always struck me as excessively bland, which is not a good quality for a performer. On the big screen, though, she seems to fare better in more serious roles. So her dramatic work in “The Good Girl” and “Friends with Money” has been more impressive than her work in the leaden comedies “The Bounty Hunter” and “The Break Up.”
Not even Jeff Goldblum, in a supporting role as Bateman’s boss, can provide a ray of comic hope in this film. He seems at a loss for what to do in his scenes and that is rare indeed. Juliette Lewis, on the other hand, dives into her cliché-ridden supporting role as the wild friend of Aniston.
I also have an axe to grind in regards to the film’s ad campaign. Now I don’t expect honesty from a studio publicity department – it’s their job to do whatever they have to to sell a picture – but to proclaim that “The Switch” is “From the people who brought you ‘Juno’ and ‘Little Miss Sunshine...’” Well that’s downright misleading. None of the creative people from those two films are involved in "The Switch" and you can see that. “The Switch” has none of the smarts displayed by either “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine.” I had to really search to find the connection between “The Switch” and these earlier successful films. Two of “The Switich’s” producers are listed as producers from “Little Miss Sunshine” but I can’t figure out which “people” from “Juno” the ad might be referring to. Unless maybe they are referring to the production company of Mandate Pictures as being “the people” who brought you both “Juno” and now “The Switch.” In the end, the ads seem to be stretching to make a connection and it’s the same kind of strain you see in the film itself.
“The Switch” (rated PG-13 for mature thematic content, sexual material including dialogue, some nudity, drug use and language) is yet another lame summer comedy. It joins the ranks of “Dinner for Schmucks” and “Sex and the City 2” as low-lights of summer fare. This is a film that desperately wants to be warm and fuzzy but it never pays the characters enough respect for something like that to actually develop.
Companion viewing: “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow,” “Juno,” “Baby Mama”