Friday, November 22, 2013

Delivery Man: Return to sender

Delivery Man (2013) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, sexual content, drug use, profanity and brief violence

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.22.13

In a case that was argued before a Kansas judge just a few weeks ago — having wound its way through the court system for roughly a year — sperm donor William Marotta is fighting an order by the state that he pay child support for a little girl he “fathered” four years ago.

As the newly pregnant Emma (Cobie Smulders) watches the uncontrolled little children
at a neighborhood park, lamenting that she hasn't the faintest notion of how to become
a mother, David (Vince Vaughn) insists that she'll be the perfect parent. He should
know, given the rather massive secret that he can't bring himself to share with her...
Marotta responded to a Craigslist ad placed by two women back in 2009; the three drew up a contract that absolved him of any responsibility to or for the child. The same-sex couple subsequently split up, which forced the custodial parent — Jennifer Schreiner — to obtain $6,000 in public assistance, to help pay her family expenses.

Kansas state law requires that a licensed doctor perform artificial insemination. Seizing a legal loophole because — wait for it — Schreiner and then-partner Angela Bauer used a catheter and syringe, with no doctor present, the state filed suit and thus far has spent well in excess of $6,000 to recover this sum from Marotta. Hovering in the wings, as Marotta’s attorney suggests, is the certainty that conservative Kansas lawmakers — the state approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2005 — are using this case to reaffirm their position on “family values.”

Although a decision is expected by the end of the year, that won’t be the end of it; both sides are expected to appeal an unfavorable verdict.

I’ve absolutely no doubt that an incisive, scathingly satirical film could be made from this bizarre scenario, and it would have been far funnier, and much more satisfying, than Ken Scott’s Delivery Man.

This Vince Vaughn vehicle has been re-shaped somewhat from the 2011 Canadian dramedy Starbuck, which Scott also directed and co-wrote with Martin Petit. That film was enormously popular in its native country, winning a series of Canadian cinema awards and making a splash at regional film festivals.

(In a fascinating case of life imitating art, a month or so into Starbuck’s production, the news broke of Michigan’s Dr. Kirk Maxey, who had fathered roughly 400 children after donating semen twice a week between 1980 and ’94. He subsequently lobbied for stricter sperm bank regulation. You think?)

I’ve not seen Starbuck, and therefore cannot comment on its merits. But I suspect it’s far more entertaining than Delivery Man, which can’t decide what it wants to be, when it grows up.

Part typical Vince Vaughn comedy, part inept social commentary, part feel-good fantasy, Scott’s remake (scripted without Petit’s participation) succeeds at being none of the above. The execution is clumsy, the script is littered with plot holes and overlooked details, and — by far the worst problem — Vaughn doesn’t seem to have any idea how to play this material.

His signature defensive, bull-in-a-china-shop belligerence doesn’t work, and he’s equally uncomfortable with the sloppy sentimentality that virtually drowns this script.

Vaughn stars as David Wozniak, a delivery driver for a family meat company owned and operated with his father (Andrzej Blumenfeld) and two brothers (Bobby Moynihan and Simon Delaney). David is something of a good-hearted unfinished soul, content to exist in a state of perpetual mediocrity, much to the dismay of longtime girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders).

She’s so disappointed in him, that her announcement of pregnancy is followed immediately by a forlorn insistence that she’ll handle this on her own, since he obviously isn’t mature enough to cope with the news.

David’s also in hock to loan-shark types to the tune of $80,000, for reasons never made clear. (He does not, for example, appear to have a gambling problem.) When one character demands to know how he possibly could have accumulated such a debt, I immediately perked up; I, too, wanted to know.

Answers came there none.

David’s life-changing event arrives in the form of a rather formal gentleman who rather informally breaks into his apartment, in order to share some news. Seems that, back in the day, David was a rather aggressive client at a sperm-donation clinic, carefully employing the nom de dad of “Starbuck.” For bizarre reasons also inadequately explained, the clinic was particularly delighted by his, ah, genetic characteristics, and made ample use of his deposits.

The breaking-news result: David is the biological father of 533 children. And 142 of them have joined in a class-action lawsuit to learn his identify.

We cannot imagine how those 142 individuals found each other in order to do this, or why the remaining 391 opted to remain disinterested; neither can Scott, who cannot be bothered with such details. No, this is a classic “high concept” script that doesn’t dwell on niceties such as, well, logic or common sense.

Speaking of the latter, and of idiotic plot contrivances, when David asks lawyer buddy Brett (Chris Pratt) to defend this suit, the latter sends our hero home with a thick folder containing photos and profiles of the 142 offspring, with orders “not to open it.”

Uh ... then why risk the temptation by giving it to him at all?

The ball-bearing sound one heard at that moment, during Tuesday evening’s preview screening, resulted from everybody’s eyes rolling noisily in their sockets.

Naturally, David disobeys. Over the course of the next few ... days? weeks? months? ... he systematically reads and then locates one randomly selected offspring at a time, all of whom quite remarkably live and work within shouting distance of the Wozniak meat market. (Remember, David is selecting them at random. They could — should — be scattered across the entire country.)

As he insinuates himself, casually or rather bluntly, into so many lives, David decides that becoming a de facto guardian angel would be the “right thing to do.” Brett naturally disagrees, since he’s struggling to find a legal basis for preserving his best friend’s donor anonymity, which David clearly is risking with all these public appearances.

Somehow, despite all the time he’s now spending with an ever-expanding pool of biological offspring, David still manages to fulfill his responsibilities to the family meat market.

Or, at least, his father and brothers never complain. Because the script says they’re not supposed to.

OK, yes, this save-the-world-one-damaged-soul-at-a-time template has merit, as has been demonstrated by TV shows such as My Name Is Earl and The 4400. And Warehouse 13. And vintage dramas such as The Millionaire and The Fugitive. And ... hmm. (Make that “overused template.)

But Scott doesn’t pursue this pattern for long, because David’s fifth (sixth? 15th?) “subject” turns out to be a developmentally disabled young man, unable to communicate in any fashion, who is stuck in an institution. (One therefore wonders how this young fellow was able to join the class-action suit.) And even though this hiccup is handled with sensitivity, the film’s hitherto larkish tone takes a rather heartbreaking tumble, from which it never recovers.

An off-camera assault on David’s sweet, gentle father, by the aforementioned loan shark thugs, also doesn’t help.

As this ill-conceived narrative lurches and stumbles from one nonsensical encounter to another, however, one burning question looms ever larger: Where the hell are all the mothers? Not one of these 142 “lost souls” is shown to have a parent: foster, step- or biological. It’s as if each is the product of immaculate donor conception.

What does Scott have against mothers? Why is David’s mother long deceased? Why must Brett be a single father raising four cute but eccentric small children, two of whom prefer to sleep in the backyard sandbox? Is this to reinforce Emma’s status as the pluperfect “proper” mother-to-be?

I could go on, but why bother? Scott builds his film to an emotionally squishy climax that is preordained, not by any semblance of plot logic, but solely because it’s the necessary happy outcome.

Pratt is mildly funny as the eternally put-upon Brett, and Smulders — well recognized from TV’s How I Met Your Mother — delivers a level of sincerity that this film hardly deserves. It also doesn’t deserve an actor of Blumenfeld’s stature; in a few quick scenes, he blows everybody else off the screen.

Vaughn, sadly, can’t begin to hold things together. His performance is as unfocused as his character’s behavior, but I doubt that anybody could save this charmless script.

I rather suspect that Disney and DreamWorks chose to release this film now, in the certain knowledge that it’ll be buried by the second Hunger Games entry, which is a perverse method of damage control: “No, we didn’t do well at the box office, but that’s because Jennifer Lawrence ruled the weekend.”

Whatever the rationale, this premature delivery should have gestated for a lot longer. Like, several years.

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