Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Switch: Awkward Fit

The Switch (2010) • View trailer for The Switch
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for sexual candor, fleeting nudity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.26.10

Some films don't find their footing right away, and The Switch is a good example. 

New York stock trader Wally Mars (Jason Bateman) and TV chat show exec Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston) are longtime best buds, having somehow side-stepped the discomfort resulting from a romance that never quite took off. That's what we're told, at least, but the plain fact is that Bateman and Aniston seem supremely uncomfortable around each other as we meet them, their dialogue sounding flat and unconvincing. 
Striking a humorous blow for nature vs. nurture, Wally (Jason Bateman, right)
discovers that he has a great deal in common with young Sebastian (Thomas
Robinson), the son he never knew. Alas, this isn't necessarily good news, since
the boy's mother has no clue about the extent of Wally's, ah, involvement with
the boy's conception.

There's little evidence, based on what we see, that Kassie would put up with a guy as self-absorbed and pessimistic as Wally. 

One suspects co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck simply don't understand the requirements of a romantic comedy, a suspicion fueled by previous credits that include the Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory and the (deservedly) failed TV series Cavemen. These guys go for broad strokes, and a film such as The Switch requires a lighter touch. 

I'm certain, for example, that Gordon and Speck are responsible for the most pointlessly unnecessary bit of male nudity I've ever seen in a film of this nature: a naked stage production of some Shakespeare play that Wally and Kassie just happen to take in. This screen extra's bared buns, along with a subsequent party scene that includes a fleeting puff of marijuana, are blatantly cynical: included solely to obtain the more demographically desirable PG-13 rating. 

But the directors aren't solely to blame. Screenwriter Allan Loeb  who adapted a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides (which was made into a much better film)  can be fingered for the clumsy "conversations" that pass between Wally and Kassie. 

Honestly, they look and act like total strangers pretending to be bosom pals. Doesn't work. 
Juliette Lewis is her usual kooky self as Debbie, Kassie's other good friend, who views Wally dubiously. Lewis tries too hard to be daffy and eccentric; Gordon and Speck let her get away with it. Again, doesn't work: too forced. 

Jeff Goldblum, happily, does far better as Wally's stock trading partner, Leonard. Goldblum, an excellent (and often underrated) actor to begin with, understands the soft sell. His mordant observations, as Wally's life spins ever more seriously out of control, provide the wry wit generally absent elsewhere in this film. 

The story's long prologue, set seven years in the past, concerns Kassie's impulsive decision to abandon her seemingly doomed attempts to find Mr. Right -— we see little evidence of such efforts, but OK  and have a baby on her own. To that end, she finds her own sperm donor, the pleasantly appealing Roland (Patrick Wilson): the sort of guy probably elected prom king back in high school. 

Wally dislikes him on sight. Naturally. 

Debbie turns the entire process into a party (!), with Roland vanishing at one point — amid much cheering from the primarily female guests  to, ah, deliver the goods into an appropriately sterile container. The plan calls for Kassie to visit the same bathroom later in the evening, in order to, ah, complete the transaction. 

Alas, the thoroughly drunk Wally unintentionally interferes with the process. Not wanting Kassie to believe anything is amiss, he "saves" the situation by making his own donation into her one-woman sperm bank. 

If all this seems distasteful and ludicrously contrived ... well, it is. Poorly conceived characters muttering stiff dialogue is bad enough; adding the cockeyed (and rather uncomfortable) notion of a single-parent-to-be's (ahem) "coming out party" makes things even worse. Half an hour into this picture, the forecast doesn't look good. 

Then, surprisingly, the dynamic shifts. 

We flash forward to the present day, which finds Wally pining for his good friend, Kassie having moved back to her parents' home in Minnesota, to raise her baby. She surprises Wally one day with the news that she and her now 6-year-old son, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), are returning to New York. 

The reunion is cautious, both adults wondering if their friendship has survived time and distance. Then Wally meets Sebastian, and everything changes. 

The boy, hilariously gloomy in ways that Wally recognizes in himself, is his spitting neurotic image. He can't help bonding with the kid; Sebastian reminds Wally of his own unhappy childhood: a fate that he feels qualified to address, and perhaps help this adorable little guy avoid. 

Robinson is this film's secret weapon. He's too cute and precious for words, his forlorn little face often pinched into the most woebegone expressions. His line delivery is spot-on, and his adult-oriented obsessions  animal suffering, mysterious diseases, the fate of the universe  are spelled out with endearing solemnity: the patient explanations of a worldly wise child to an adult who Doesn't Get It. 

Sebastian also has an oddly poignant hobby; he collects picture frames, but never inserts his own photographs. He prefers to make up stories about the models hired to pose for the purposes of marketing the frames: This older gentleman is his kindly grandfather; that one is an absent uncle. 

Bateman and this little actor share a natural ease that has been absent until now; better yet, the credible dynamic between Wally and Sebastian also improves the interactions between Wally and Kassie. With this little boy as a catalyst, suddenly we're in comfortable romantic comedy territory. 

The contrived premise apparently was necessary to get us this far  although I'd argue that this film's first act could have been constructed far, far better  and the payoff is warmer, funnier and more poignant than we had any right to expect. 

Bateman is a master of the querulous gaze, and his slow takes are to die for. Once in Sebastian's company, Wally becomes sensitive and humorous, with just enough self-mocking disapproval to be viewed as wise, rather than dismal. 

Loeb's dialogue no longer sounds like characters constantly trying to score off each other; genuine compassion begins to emerge. 

Roland's shortcomings, certainly not serious, are deftly handled by Wilson. He's not a bad guy; he simply doesn't understand how to deal with a child like Sebastian. For the most part, we view Roland as well-meaning, but every now and again he uncorks a stray comment that speaks ill of his worthiness as this boy's potential step-father. 

And Wally  Bateman's probing gaze on full view for our benefit  inevitably is on hand to witness these lapses. And to wonder. 

Because, in true screwball romantic comedy fashion, Kassie has developed feelings for Roland. Much to Wally's mounting horror. 

Aside from being cute and perky - once the script allows her to calm down - Aniston doesn't bring much to this party. Any actress could have played Kassie; many would have done a better job. 

No, this show belongs to Bateman and young Robinson, and as a team they work hard to undo the damage of this film's clumsy first act. To a degree, they succeed; The Switch never rises above its modest, B-film origins, but it'll send viewers home with a warm smile. 

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