The Switch

If only Jason Bateman had been more like Patrick Bateman here.

It is a sad sign that the number of good rom-coms released this year can be counted on one hand – in fact, pretty much one finger – for aside from the fun Heartbreaker, the admittedly more action-orientated Knight and Day, and the flawed if tolerable The Rebound, the docket has been filled with the insultingly simple-minded likes of Leap Year, Valentine’s Day, When in Rome, The Bounty Hunter and The Back-Up Plan. Following in the footsteps of the aforementioned J-Lo starring turkey baster comedy, The Switch tackles the ever-relevant artificial insemination debate, and while peppered with tonal issues, it is at least thoughtful and not as condescending as its platitude-slathered sisters.

Kassie Singleton (Jennifer Aniston) is an independent-minded, single New Yorker who wishes to have a baby. Tired of trying to find Mr. Right, she decides to go it alone via chiselled, charming sperm donor Roland (Patrick Wilson). However, Kassie’s neurotic friend Wally (Jason Bateman), who harbours feelings for her, advises against it, and when she hosts an artificial insemination party, Wally accidentally spills Roland’s sample, and drunkenly replaces it with his own. Seven years later, after Kassie and Wally have fallen out of touch, she returns to New York, and Wally must decide what to do about both the product of his sperm – Kassie’s similarly neurotic six year-old son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) – and Roland, who is now dating Kassie.

The question instantly begs itself – do we really need another comedy about artificial insemination? – but unlike The Back-Up Plan, there are some solid characters, smart observations and good actors at work here. Most surprising is Jason Bateman’s proficiency in the dramatic arena; an opening narration about missed opportunities is spoken with a resounding honesty, and though he has proven himself as diverse in both Juno and Up in the Air, here his decidedly more barbed character is better thought of as a misanthropic version of his exasperated Michael Bluth character from Arrested Development. Bateman’s chemistry with his co-star Aniston sizzles, and their simple banter of one-upsmanship during an early dinner scene is remarkably authentic, as though actually watching two long-time acquaintances chewing the fat. Simply, this is the best thing that Aniston has been involved with in quite some time, even if she never ignites the screen like Bateman, for this is undoubtedly his show.

Helping things are also a rousing supporting cast; Jeff Goldlbum takes a break from his TV work for his first mainstream film role in over five years, and his honest dissection of Wally’s neurosis allows Goldblum to, with the relaxed yet slick demeanour that has defined much of his career, completely own most of the scenes he appears in. Juliette Lewis is also decent as the airheaded bimbo she has honed over the years, while Patrick Wilson’s perfect smile and chirpy temperament make him a fine fit for the role of the overly-optimistic yet emotionally crippled Roland.

The main issue of contention, however, is the film’s tone, for while Wally is the obvious object of sympathy, he is in fact pretty creepy at times, particularly when he sends one of Kassie’s potential suitors on a fool’s errand, and of course, when he performs the titular switch (though this is mitigated somewhat by his spilling of the donor seed being an accident). Bateman’s character is the one good shot that the film has at galvanising its audience to root for someone, because Aniston is watchable if fairly plan as usual, yet when he is not only such an oddball, but also unbearably pessimistic, it is difficult to like him or want him to succeed. The tone eschews to such an extent that one almost wishes that Allan Loeb’s screenplay had gone the whole hog and turned the affair into a dark comedy in which Bateman’s character deliberately, soberly switches the samples and is intentionally freaky.

Still, there are some inherently funny situations throughout; Thomas Robinson is well cast as Bateman’s little doppelgänger, resembling a good physical likeness and also conveying the seemingly genetic neurosis of his character well given his age. He plays the cute card aptly, though there are moments – such as when he refuses to eat meat at a restaurant that Wally has paid an exorbitant amount of money for – that one wonders why Kassie doesn’t scold him rather than placate his every whim. This particular scene ironically makes the more mild Kassie and Sebastian actually seem more dislikeable while making one identify with Wally for once, so it’s not all bad. The chemistry between Bateman and Robinson is also palpable, nailing the peculiarity of a neurotic middle-aged man talking life lessons with a similarly abnormal young boy. When the penny of course drops and Wally realises who Sebastian is, it is the film’s magic moment, and Goldblum’s reaction is absolute gold.

The film quite apparently endeavours to be a potent drama as well as a comedy, yet this is where it finds trouble. Interspersing scenes of quiet, supposedly poignant contemplation after a gruelling one in which Patrick Wilson’s devastated character appears to fall to pieces inside – which seems to be played for comedy, nevertheless – is mildly uncomfortable and causes the film to, like its characters, feel very rough around the edges. It’s a shame because had the trajectory of the humour and drama been better ironed out, The Switch could have worked swimmingly as a Curb Your Enthusiasm-esque vehicle for Bateman, who more than has the chops to play Larry David’s overly pedantic, people-hating role. There is a refreshing aspect to his bluntness with people, but when the film aggressively expects us to want him to get together with Kassie, it isn’t the best mix, and a far stronger ending as a result was possible.

Fortunately, even though the last five minutes should have been chopped entirely, ending on a more authentically redemptive ending for both characters, Bateman still knocks his monologues out of the park, even if it does cripple the comic momentum. It is just a shame that any sense of pragmatism promised by the inevitable “truth shall set you free” scene is quickly squandered by an ill-advised “cat that got the cream” ending instead. The constituent elements – the observational comedy, the cast, and especially Bateman – are all game, yet the screenplay overplays its hand and though intermittently smart and funny, fails to come up with any characters that are worth rooting for. Still, given the genre’s performance recently, it could be a lot worse.

The Switch goes on general UK cinema release on Wednesday, September 1st.


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