Friday, September 10, 2010

Bad Romance: THE SWITCH and GOING THE DISTANCE

If I had to pick just one genre that has had the worst 2010 thus far, I would look no further than the romantic comedy. The bar has been considerably lowered by the likes of The Bounty Hunter, The Back-Up Plan, Killers, She’s Out of My League, Valentine’s Day, Leap Year, and When in Rome. I got frustrated and disappointed just typing that list and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Until now, I’ve overlooked The Switch and Going the Distance, two recent rom-coms that are fading fast at the box office. But, being who I am, I’ve caught up with them. After all, the genre’s downward trend has to break sometime.


Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck follow up their middling Will Ferrell figure-skating comedy Blades of Glory with The Switch, a romantic comedy that hinges on Jason Bateman putting his ingredients in Jennifer Aniston’s sperm donor sample cup. It’s not as bad as it sounds. See, Bateman carries a torch for his platonic best friend Aniston, so when he gets drunk at her artificial insemination party, already jealous that she turned down his sample on account of his “neuroses,” he knocks over the sample provided by the athletic and confident Patrick Wilson. And really, does Bateman have another choice? Or, at least, is there another choice that a drunken jealous guy could think up?

Yes, the concept’s kind of icky and could easily go very wrong. Indeed, the first several minutes of the film, which sets up the will-they-won’t-they chemistry between Bateman and Aniston and then sets up the central concept, are definitely worrisome. The film seems to be treading towards an uncomfortable place (and not in a funny way), especially when the single-mom-to-be decides to move away. But then, a small miracle happens. The film skips forward seven years and gets good. Aniston moves back with a seven-year-old boy in tow, a precocious, neurotic, hypochondriac of a child. It’s clear right away who the real father is, but the movie doesn’t press the plot into hysterics or wild avoidance maneuvers. Instead, this becomes as calm and character-based as a standard high-concept studio comedy is allowed to be.

The film is slight without ever feeling disposable, amusing without ever becoming hilarious. Bateman and Aniston have a lovely chemistry and it’s their warmth and camaraderie that keep the plot from feeling uncomfortable. Why, they are as believable as you could imagine two oblivious soul mates that need a sperm-related mix-up and seven years apart to realize their true love. What is uncomfortable in the abstract becomes gentle and likable in the specifics on the strength of the cast (especially Jeff Goldblum, who brings some of his trademarked spacey syncopation to line readings) and the solidness of Allan Loeb’s writing. (Though Loeb does step wrong in forcing Bateman to recite some very terrible narration as a framing device).

But perhaps even more than the strength of the leads, the film works because of the great performance from Thomas Robinson as the little boy. Because the film is more about the boy and not his conception, it allows for a deeper resonance in the emotions. Robinson’s interactions with Bateman are charming where most cute-kid plots turn cloying. This isn’t just a romance between two friends who slowly realize their friendship runs deeper. This is also a romance about parenthood, about a father who grows to love his child. And that’s what sets it apart, making this otherwise airy, awkward film so enjoyable.


Going the Distance, however, is not a good example of the romantic comedy, continuing the year’s dispiriting trend. In fact, this is a movie that slowly, methodically drove me nuts with a torturous drip of underwhelming scenes. It’s about how a recently dumped record-company employee (Justin Long) and a struggling reporter (Drew Barrymore) meet cute at a bar’s arcade game, start a whirlwind romance montage, and then spend most of the rest of the movie in a long-distance relationship. The pieces are there for a good movie that doesn’t materialize. It’s never bad in any spectacular or notable ways. There’s just a dull ache of missed opportunities that curdles into a desire for a fast-forward button.

The movie dies a death of a thousand mediocrities. By the time, much to my relief, the credits showed up, I realized I could count the number of times I smiled on one hand. Most of the fleeting enjoyment came care of Christina Applegate, Jim Gaffigan, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, and Ron Livingston, who are each given just one note to play. Documentarian Nanette Burstein makes her fiction-feature debut here. She should stick to documentaries if she can’t get a better script than this. Geoff LaTulippe’s screenplay is thoroughly unimaginative, falling back on standard rom-com moments (Long actually runs through an airport!). From time to time we get lucky and the script falls back on bad dialogue, bland raunchy discussions, or montages instead. There’s still hope for the rom-com genre, but none to be found here.

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