Hollywood comedies, more often than not, go big in terms of everything — concepts, emotion, stakes and action — because there’s always the fear that if the laughs aren’t coming at a certain clip, and always out loud, then they’re not really there. Comedies with more modest, recognizably human stakes — that aim for smiles or silent, inwardly reflected laughter — are a rare breed, and often end up shuttled off straight to video, or released in top-market, platform fashion by independent distributors.
All of which brings us to The Switch, toplined by two stars, released by a major studio, and featuring an outrageous concept (unwitting sperm swap!) that would seem to augur much more slapstick demonstrativeness than is present. Starring Jason Bateman and Jennifer
Aniston, and adapted by Alan Loeb from a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s movie is a curious but not unpleasant thing, not the least of which is because of the wide gulf between its concept and how it’s being marketed and the more melancholic reality of what it is.
Bateman stars as Wally Mars, an uptight white collar New York City investment guru whose best friend is Kassie Larson (Aniston). When Kassie deems the ticking of her biological clock too loud to wait around any further for a guy, she decides to pursue artificial insemination. Wally has carried a torch for Kassie forever (they dated briefly, we’re told), but, unable to hoist the bat off his shoulder and take a real swing at things, he glumly agrees to attend her impregnation party, where he meets her sperm donor, Roland (Patrick Wilson), before consoling himself by getting wasted.
Kassie further breaks Wally’s heart by leaving New York, wanting to raise her child back in Minnesota, where she’s from. Years later, however, she returns, with her six-year-old son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) in tow. Wally is initially less interested in getting to know the kid than in simply reconnecting with Kassie, but soon starts to notice similarities between himself and this little smart, sensitive hypochondriac. Could he have really switched sperm samples the night of Kassie’s party? And how should he break this news to her? Things are additionally complicated by the fact that Roland, fresh off a divorce, is now in play romantically for a possibly interested Kassie.
So hijinks ensue, right? No, not really. More like low-fidelity fumbling and uncertainty, all slipped under some downbeat narration from Bateman. A mid-tempo work that’s not wildly dissimilar from Steve Conrad’s The Promotion and Stephen Belber’s Management (another film in which Aniston appeared, opposite Steve Zahn), The Switch takes a narrative conceit seemingly built for zany flight and tries to find the grounded human angles, which is sometimes tough. If the sense of scene-to-scene attachment and investment at times feels a bit sluggish or lacking (particularly early on), it’s because, as with many books but far fewer films, The Switch invests heartily in scenes with Wally figuring out what the audience already knows (e.g., a long talk with a pal, played by Jeff Goldblum, in which he eventually reconnects the dots of the drunken evening in question).
This isn’t a disqualifying problem so much as an observation. Owing largely to its source roots but also marked by choices in its cinematic adaptation, The Switch is deeply concerned with character and interior feeling (Wally’s ambivalence regarding possible fatherhood, and whether he can accept it either with or without romantic strings attached) and so it takes its time in meting out conflict; its unfussy slipstream rhythms are the exact opposite of the look-at-me gyrations and gesticulations that comprise so much of modern big screen comedy. If one counts their enjoyment of a film of this ilk solely based on laughing out loud, then The Switch is most assuredly not for them. If, however, they enjoy laughing silently to oneself, and then thinking a bit about where that laughter comes from, The Switch has some enjoyable moments to offer.
Kassie, thankfully, isn’t completely oblivious to the notion of Wally’s attraction to her, but the film is least persuasive in sketching out the deep-set particulars of their relationship, which seems to exist in an entirely desexualized state — somewhat ironic, given the nature of the movie’s conceit. Where The Switch is also very much in lockstep with its romantic comedy colleagues is in its flubbing of the penultimate moment of conflict, wherein Wally has to decide how to come clean to Kassie about what he’s done. Kassie reacts angrily, not because of anything rooted in logic, but seemingly only because the story then requires a stormy moment.
Still, Bateman is the exact right anchor for this sort of material, able to convey a quiet inner desperation while also still ringing up laughs and smiles purely off of line readings, based on his impeccable sense of timing. (Aniston, while still radiant, is a bit less successful, if only because Kassie seems underwritten, prone to flighty rationalizations.) While it’s being sold as another comedy of anarchic male ribaldry, the title of The Switch actually plays two ways since its atypicality is its biggest blessing. (Disney, PG-13, 101 minutes)