As it trudges along a predictable path through a formulaic scenario, “When the Bough Breaks” comes across as a Lifetime cable movie that got lucky and won a lottery offering theatrical release as first prize. The presence of a predominantly African-American cast arguably is the only distinguishing characteristic of this by-the-numbers thriller about a childless couple’s unwitting employment of an unstable surrogate mother. Of course, some folks might contend that even a thoroughly ordinary film that provides gainful employment for attractive and talented pros like Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall is worth, at the very least, 106 minutes of anyone’s time. But it’s a safe bet that such charitable souls would prefer to spend that time in the comfort of their living rooms, rather than inside their friendly neighborhood multiplexes.
Chestnut and Hall are well cast as John and Laura Taylor, a New Orleans power couple — he’s a successful attorney, she’s a celebrity chef — extremely eager to become parents. But after enduring the trauma of three miscarriages, they are ready to work with an agency that matches clients with fertile surrogates. The Taylors are immediately taken with Anna (newcomer Jaz Sinclair), a beautiful young waitress who claims she loves — just loves — helping other people. Just as important, she adds, she plans to use the fee she’ll earn for her help to invest in a business venture with Mike (Theo Rossi from “Sons of Anarchy”), her Mr. Bad Vibes boyfriend.
When Mike appears to dial it up from creepy to abusive, the Taylors invite Anna to move into the guest house of their lush Garden District home. Trouble is, Anna isn’t quite as virtuous, or as harmless, as she seems. And as her pregnancy progresses, she grows ever obsessed with forming closer ties with the inconveniently married father of the baby she is carrying.
Working from a script by Jack Olsen, director Jon Cassar (“Forsaken”) dutifully endeavors to charge “When the Bough Breaks” with alternating currents of apprehension and eroticism. But despite Sinclair’s impressively smooth transition from girlish innocent to alluring sexpot, her character’s attempts at seduction fail to generate much dramatic tension, since there’s never any real doubt about John’s loyalty to Laura — primarily because Chestnut and Hall generate so much heat together. (Or at least as much heat as two semi-nude people can generate during a lovemaking scene in a PG-13 movie.)
Cassar is slightly more successful when it comes to building suspense during the mandatory scenes of violence and danger, despite his reliance on shocks, setups and payoffs best described as generic. How generic? Consider: A pet cat is pointedly acknowledged so many times in the first and second acts that only the most clueless viewers will be stunned when it’s revealed that, sometimes, nine lives are not enough.
On the other hand, it should be noted that “When the Bough Breaks” isn’t entirely bereft of surprises. In fact, this probably is the first movie ever made in which a psycho killer stops short of completing an assault because her water breaks.