You really have to hand it to Jason Bateman. Upon his reemergence from the wasteland of the ‘90s and his subsequent resurgence (thanks in no small part to his deft comic work in Arrested Development), the 42-year-old erstwhile teenage wolf has consistently accepted roles that allow him to challenge comedic archetypes. In the case of Mike Judge’s undervalued Extract, he played a sensible (not oafish or scheming) boss to a clown’s-car worth of gossips, nincompoops, and headbangers, not to mention one comely con artist; not long before that, he balanced seductive hipness with middle-age hysteria in Juno. In both Couples Retreat, he was able to create memorable riffs on the atypical married stiff, despite only being given a sliver of screen time next to Vince Vaughn. Even his take on the straight husband and father routine in Hancock registered several measures above what that role required, allowing him to hold even ground with a washed-up, super-powered Will Smith.
Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s The Switch, adapted by Allan Loeb from Jeffrey Eugenides’s brilliant short story “Baster,” offers Bateman perhaps his most challenging role to date, in terms of pitting his inherent likability against the darker corners of his character’s psyche. He plays Wally, a bachelor working in a comfortable corner of the financial sector and stewing on the wrong side of 35. Habitually moaning whilst having a nosh, this amiable lump of neurosis nearly misses it when his plutonic gal pal and once-was object of his affection, Kassie (Jennifer Aniston), announces that, herself being on the same side of 35, she has decided to get inseminated. Clueless as to why his seed wouldn’t be chosen, Wally begrudgingly agrees to go to Kassie’s insemination party, where he promptly gets wasted and chats up Kassie’s rock-climbing, lovefool donor, Roland (Patrick Wilson, a welcome presence).
Roland’s sample sits in a sort of alter in Kassie’s bathroom, which in itself insinuates some interesting things about how we breed nowadays, along with the concept of an insemination party. When Wally encounters the sample, his subconscious kicks the door in: He “accidentally” spills the user-approved seed down the sink and, after rubbing one out to a photo of Diane Sawyer, replaces the sample with his own. Wally awakes the next morning remembering nothing of his highly criminal switcheroo and soon enough, Kassie informs him that she is with child and moving out of New York City.
Jump to seven years later as Kassie decides to return to the Big Apple with her son, Sebastian (a remarkable Thomas Robinson), a despondent vegetarian made in Wally’s image who is, of course, addicted to WebMD and can easily recite the tortures ducks go through before they are served at Korean grills. Wally’s memories of that fateful night begin to flood back not long after Sebastian takes a shine to him and Kassie takes a renewed shine to the newly divorced Roland, easily setting up the rote trajectory of what eventually strives to be more a comedy in the style of James Brooks than the modern Apatow standard. The jokes here are behavioral, less improvisational and more tied to gestures, reactions, and delivery, but they are also far less plentiful and there are moments when the film is simply unable to draw attention away from the fact that the narrative is in a holding pattern.
It should be made clear that Eugenides’s story serves only as a loose template for Loeb’s script, which whitewashes a great deal of the darker impulses of the source material and merely extracts the premise for use. Loeb sketches a blueprint for mediocrity, but it’s Gordon and Speck who have ensured the production of a mediocrity, regardless of the fact that it is negligibly better acted and shot (kudos to Jess Hall’s slick yet moody 35mm cinematography) than a great deal of romantic comedies that are released every year. But this is precisely the problem: One doesn’t need to be an ardent defender of strict adaptation (I certainly am not) to see that The Switch was never meant to be a lite movie, even in Loeb’s draft, but Gordon and Speck, who last directed the ice-skating farce Blades of Glory, are obviously ill-prepared to handle the more unseemly themes and actions that arise in the story.
The film’s drawn-out climax and preposterous “happy ending” are the sort of narrative short cuts that make the positive aspects of the preceding action fade quickly, but The Switch is ultimately more of a trifle than a complete failure and this can be directly attributed to the work of the three central actors. Robinson steals scenes regularly, but Aniston and Bateman’s unique chemistry continuously powers the film through its more choppy narrative waters. When they are not sparring strictly with one another, they are strongly supported by Jeff Goldblum as Bateman’s best friend and boss and Juliette Lewis as Kassie’s free-spirited girlfriend, along with Mr. Wilson.
Casting, more times than not, is the strongest indicator of a film’s tone and from the outset, one could have perhaps surmised that The Switch was going to have about as much to do with “Baster” as 300 had to do with the actual Battle of Thermopylae. A stricter adaptation might have garnered attention from Mike Nichols and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but to dream of what might have been is an endeavor that is only as tempting as it is fruitless. And in terms of Bateman’s performance, Wally remains a suitable upending of a stereotypical rom-com caricature, a perverse spin on the nerd/fat-ass who romances the unlikely, gorgeous best friend. The actor imbues the character with his own personal rhythms and movement, admirable nuances that get lost as his directors and writer seek a marketable, inoffensive and impersonal state of dull pleasance.
The quality of Lionsgate's 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is not in question here. Retaining its 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film's sharpness and sense of detail is peerless throughout, as are black levels. Even saturation is generally solid, but the overall transfer is hampered by the fact that the film appears largely in dour color tones, which don't give much to show off but match the tone of the film rather perfectly. Skin tones are good and there are almost no signs of artifacts. The audio fares much better with a seamless mix of dialogue, score, and New York City atmosphere noise, which gets a glorious workout in the insemination party sequence. An irrefutably solid presentation, all things considered.
Not much going on in the extras department. An insipid 14-minute making-of featurette headlines a mixed bag of bloopers, deleted scenes, and alternate scenes, some of which are introduced by directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck.
Despite a strong cast and technical specs, The Switch remains another easily disposable entertainment built out of the rubble of a promising literary prospect.