Generating pre-release controversy between star-exec producer Jennifer Aniston and Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, artificial-insemination comedy “The Switch” turns out to have bigger problems than TV newsies. An unfunny, manipulative romance about two unlikable people and their prop of a son, the pic mangles the premise of its source material (“Baster,” a 1996 short story by Pulitzer-winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides) in ways that ought to baffle viewers of all sociopolitical stripes. Thanks in part to the free publicity provided by O’Reilly, the Miramax release should do respectable business upon its Aug. 20 release.
The pic gets off to a curious start in introducing its leads, dour stockbroker Wally (Jason Bateman) and long-suffering TV producer Kassie (Aniston). As these longtime platonic pals meet for lunch in a Manhattan hotspot, hypochondriac Wally shows Kassie an iPhone snapshot of his genitals, on which he fears there’s some sort of growth. Kassie then changes the subject to announce she’s planning to have a baby, using donated sperm to do so.
This off-putting exchange provokes the first of many disagreements between the two, and Wally is content to pout until he receives an invitation to Kassie’s “insemination party.” There, he meets Kassie’s smarmy sperm donor (Patrick Wilson) and proceeds to drink himself into oblivion, whereupon he half-unintentionally spills the chosen one’s seed and surreptitiously replaces it with his own.
While a few lines of dialogue are taken verbatim from the Eugenides story (though Wally’s opening voiceover, in which he muses, “Look at us, always rushed, always late; I guess that’s why they call it the human race” is most assuredly not), the source material provides only the first 15 minutes or so of screentime. The rest of the script (by Allan Loeb) has been invented wholesale. While Eugenides’ story portrays Wally’s switch as a twisted, almost rape-like violation, helmers Josh Gordon and Will Speck attempt to play it off as a charmingly bumbling folly (and to further excuse it by making Wally drunk at the time), imparting a sour feeling to all that follows.
After Kassie conveniently moves to Michigan, she returns to New York seven years later, with 6-year-old Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) in tow. A walking rebuke of B.F. Skinner, the kid is cartoonishly stricken with neuroses, hypochondria and age-inappropriate cynicism, despite never having met the father from whom he derives these traits.
What follows are alternately tender and cloying scenes of oddball father-son bonding. Standard hijinks and simmering attractions ensue, complete with dog reaction shots and gags about modern art.
First-timer Robinson is undeniably adorable, adept at using his giant eyes to tearjerking effect, but there’s little he can do with a script that requires him to speak in sentences no 6-year-old has ever uttered. Bateman’s usually charming prickliness takes on a darker shade as he limns such an unpleasant character, while Aniston is largely a cipher.
One bright spot is supporting player Jeff Goldblum, who shows up as Wally’s wry co-worker/confidant, though he appears to spend half his scenes on the verge of cracking up over his own private jokes; one wishes he’d bothered to share them with the audience. Juliette Lewis is likable enough as his female counterpart.
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