In their first feature, Blades of Glory, co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck proved themselves to be perfectly capable but mostly forgettable filmmakers: despite a few inspired one-liners, the comedy played as broadly as possible, and it was only the central presence of a gifted comedian (Will Ferrell) that gave the finished product what little spark it had. The eerie thing about The Switch is how closely it hews to what didn’t even feel like a formula the first time but now has all the earmarks of a template: it’s got some great jokes but a lot of broad strokes, and it’s only Jason Bateman’s pitch-perfect comic chops that makes the film work as much as it does. Gordon and Speck apparently set out to create a perfectly serviceable and not at all challenging Hollywood studio picture, and that’s what they’ve come up with: something with a few cute moments that would work better if they didn’t feel pulled fully formed from their packaging and assembled to make a Wistful But Diverting Comedic Drama About The Human Condition. Everything about the film, from the occasionally random transitions to the Randy-Newman-lite score from Alex Wurman, is designed to coddle the viewer into a state closer to submission than actual happiness. Of course, the best moments in the film are the ones that break through that shellac and do something different, and it’s in those precious few instances that the film almost becomes a capable comedy about and for adults. Mostly, though, it’s the equivalent of cinematic leftovers: No amount of wishing will make it as good as a fresh meal.
The Switch is based on Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story “Baster,” which first appeared in 1996 in The New Yorker. This, however, is only true to an extent: the story is merely the premise for the film, enough to juice it for only the first act. Whether any of the dialogue from that story appears in the film, I don’t know, but it can’t be a coincidence that the film’s first half-hour is also its strongest. The set-up of the story — a woman decides to get pregnant via insemination, only to have her best friend substitute his own sperm on the sly at the last minute — is compelling in a darkly hilarious way, like a screwball comedy with an actual life on the line, and it’s while Gordon and Speck are breezing through all this that their film is at its funniest and smartest. Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) is the woman in question whose decision to have a baby with the help of a gorgeous donor named Roland (Patrick Wilson) doesn’t sit well with her protective best friend, Wally (Bateman). The first third of the film is stronger largely because, though Wally and Kassie will of course have to eventually deal with inevitable romantic feelings between them, they start out as actual friends, and their chemistry and banter is sharper than it is later because they’re not yet restrained by the simple limitations of having to go through the rom-com dance of liking each other, hating each other, then getting married during the closing credits.
Kassie throws a party for the night she conceives, since she wants to use a fresh sample. Wally, beginning to wrestle with the seed of his feelings for Kate and also feeling generally left out of the whole thing, gets incredibly drunk, knocks the sample into the bathroom sink, and decides to replace it with his own specimen before going home and blacking out. Kassie gets pregnant, leaves town for a while, and comes back, mainly so screenwriter Allan Loeb doesn’t have to come up with a more interesting way for seven years to pass. On her return, she’s now the mother of Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), a freakish child whose precocity tests the limits of even movie reality. It’s obviously Wally’s son, though he still doesn’t remember what he did, so now we’re off to the races.
This is pretty much when the wheels come off. Sebastian is the kind of freakish creation found only in bad comedies that feel an adult must play off a miniature version of himself. The child is 6 years old but written like a shrunken Woody Allen, all nervous tics and hypochondriac panic, not to mention possessed of a medical vocabulary to rival professional health care providers. He’s constructed solely as a prop, and when Robinson isn’t awkwardly working his way through ridiculous dialogue, he’s making sweeping emotional gestures written by someone who has never spent any amount of time around an elementary schooler. This is not entirely Robinson’s fault. He is, after all, a very young child, and he’s treated by Loeb, Gordon, and Speck as nothing more than a breathing placeholder meant to exacerbate Wally’s own problems. There are fleeting glimmers where he becomes a real boy, often in those quick interactions with Kassie or Wally where they’re putting him to bed or tickling him or just doing something to elicit the kind of human reaction increasingly absent from the film. And in those glimpses, he demonstrates the happiness, energy, and uniqueness that make him a kid. But soon enough, it’s back to the improbable man-child act.
Loeb’s plot hits every standard beat on its unassuming trot to the finish line, mustering about as much drama and narrative tension as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book that’s three pages long. Loeb knows that there’s no sense pretending that anything else is going on besides Wally’s decision about how and when to own up to what happened, so he doesn’t. Jeff Goldblum ambles through a few scenes as Wally’s sympathetic boss and mentor in the kind of role Alec Baldwin probably charges too much to do these days, while Wilson is believably obtuse as a confused man trying to find a new place in Kassie’s world. Aniston plays the same composite character she does in every film: vaguely bohemian, occasionally erratic, and mainly there as a foil for someone else, even in her own story. Bateman is the only bullet in the film’s gun, and he’s got enough charm and confidence to sell the idea of his scenes, if not the content. His delivery is deadpan but never dour, as if he’s amused with his jokes but also depressed he has to tell them. He can also make a boring line less so, as in the scene where he explains to Kassie about giving false directions to a man who was hitting on her, sending the guy to Washington Heights. He tells her, “Harlem was too gentrified; I had to go higher.” It’s not a lasting joke, or even a revealing or great one, but there’s just something about the way Bateman believably skips through it that lifts it up. He’s the only part of the film worth anything.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough. At one point, Wally’s tucking Sebastian into bed in what’s meant to be a scene that brings back Wally’s memories of being abandoned by his own father, an opening up that will help him grow closer to his young son. Yet Bateman’s (not totally insincere) emoting is met by the steely and machine-like gaze of a badly coached child actor, and the disconnect destroys everything. The scene, like the film on the whole, is nothing but good intentions plagued by mediocrity. Say this for Gordon and Speck: at least they’re consistent.