The one thing going for When the Bough Breaks, a bad psychological thriller with no psychology of any note, is its willingness to touch touchy subject matter. It loads up its twists with material about conception and pregnancies, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and children in danger. It walks right up to the edge of distasteful and touch, touch, touches the line like a nagging sibling wiggling a finger close enough to disturb the very edge of arm hair while repeating “I’m not touching you.” It wants credit for the will to transgress a line without actually having the bravery to back up its bluff. And yet that’s the only charge to speak of in this dishwater dull movie about a wealthy, happily married, infertile couple (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) that turns to a surrogate (Paper Towns’ Jaz Sinclair) who’ll carry their last viable embryo. Since you’re aware of the genre, you know that the shy dimply smiles and rosy generosity from all involved at the outset is bound to get creepy. It turns out the surrogate has undefined problems which threaten to destroy everything they hope for. All their eggs are in one basket case, so to speak.
Predictable to its core, the movie is built out of spare parts of others. Take bits of Obsessed, a better trashy thriller in which Ali Larter stalks Idris Elba to the dismay of his wife Beyoncé, and you’ll have some of the setup. The surrogate develops an unhealthy obsession with the husband of the couple whose baby she’s carrying. That’s twisted, and should be good creepy fun, or at the very least some low tacky camp, like a Fatal Attraction set off without an affair. Instead, her obsession is dialed up and down depending on the screenplay’s whims. So, too, are the feelings of the married couple. Sometimes they’re shrugging off weird behavior. Other times they’re scared, scrambling for a way to keep the surrogate happy, knowing how important a perfect delivery would be. Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall are great actors, and it’s a testament to their skill that they invest so much emotion in such flimsy, psychologically incoherent plot developments. It’s a thriller that develops its crisis points in fits and starts, hoping we forget looming red herrings and real problems alike as the characters do while trying to convince themselves everything’s okay.
It’s the sort of movie where, if you see a cat in the first act you know it’ll be flayed open in the nursery by the third act. If there’s a treasured family teddy bear, it’ll have its stuffing spread over the room. If there’s a nice glass patio table, it’ll smash. If a colleague (Romany Malco) stares at the surrogate, it’s so he’ll recognize her in a blackmail photo later. If a leering roofer mentions peeking in windows, guess where someone will spy an exhibitionist? (Also, the leaky pipe he mentions in the same conversation will be the reason it happens.) Jack Olsen’s screenplay is totally obvious and conventional, which is bad enough without taking a long time reaching its inevitable banal payoffs. Characters speak only what directly matters to the plot in flat, flimsy dialogue, and are only characterized insofar as it serves a story function. Hall’s character will want to throw a dinner party or two? Well, she’s a chef. Chestnut will need a reason to whip up legal documents with unbelievable speed? Well, he’s a lawyer. The whole thing is just too transparent about its clanking machinery as plot mechanics grind their gears.
So it’s not a good movie. It’s also not a good bad movie. The proceedings are bland, over-familiar, tediously derivative boredom. With a premise as juicy as this one, you think it’d be more than mildly troubling, but it’s not as shocking or sexy as it thinks, or as it easily could’ve been. Director Jon Cassar (of TV’s 24) brings a workmanlike proficiency to the screenplay’s weak provocations, keeping it at a polished cheap digital remove. (The production stills look sharper than the finished product.) It’s so under-thought it even finds unintentionally queasy accidental comedy, like when an info-dump including the line “she was abused” plays out as voice over while the woman in question shops for bananas. It’s just one bad decision after another. I mean, when you can’t even make Michael K. Williams playing a human plot hole plug entertaining – even when he bursts into the scene to immediately solve a missing person mystery with little more than “I got the address; let’s go!” – the movie’s got some irredeemable, fundamental problems.