Wally Mars (Jason Bateman) looks great on paper. It's in the flesh that the Wall Street broker resembles Eeyore. Wally is human buzzkill, so gloomy that next to him Woody Allen looks like Pollyanna. In The Switch, the Jason Bateman film his fans have been waiting for, he is the undateable in pursuit of the unattainable.
Wally's Venus is Kassie Larson (Jennifer Aniston), the sugar cookie to his sour pickle. He loves Kassie, a TV producer, but is too timid to bust a move. He lives on the crumbs of her friendship.
When she decides to have a baby solo, Kassie rejects Wally's offer to donate sperm. At her "insemination party," the drunk and jealous Wally switches his stuff with that of donor Roland (Patrick Wilson, golden and bold as Wally is ashen and meek). Then, Wally blacks out.
By turns rowdy and rueful, The Switch is a comedy with serious ramifications, not least of which is the question, what makes a family?
The film relies on a couple of other switcheroos. In terms of the standard formula, it switches mistaken identity for mistaken paternity. It switches the male/female relationship for that between father and son. Its switches the traditional meet/marry/mate order of affairs for the test tube. In other words, it's not strictly a romantic farce but a reproductive comedy about accidental insemination.
Like When Harry Met Sally . . ., its implication is that a warm friendship is a stronger foundation for marriage than one based on hormonal heat.
At their best, workmanlike directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (who made the broad Blades of Glory) do not get in Bateman's way. The Switch shows how his Wally goes from a glass-half-empty kind of guy to a glass-half-full one.
(The source material, Jeffrey Eugenides' short story "Baster," was more a tale of the tyranny of beauty and told as much from the female's perspective as the male's.)
Resembling an unmade bed in a parka, Bateman plays Wally as that guy who, just when things get intimate, walls himself off. As Kassie, Aniston furnishes the obligatory energy and sparkle, but she is a supporting player in what has been conceived as the story of Wally's transformation.
In the script from Allan Loeb, the agent of change is Sebastian, Kassie's son (wonderfully played by preternaturally worried Thomas Robinson), in whom Wally recognizes his own fatalism and neurosis. When Wally realizes that Sebastian might be his issue, he remembers his drunken stunt but can't quite explain it to Kassie.
Bateman has a self-lacerating quality that is as unnerving as it is nervily funny. For the most part, it carries the day, and the film. The film's comic-relief duties are expertly handled by Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis, who are straight-out hilarious as the best-friends-of more neurotic, if possible, than the leads.
Bateman might carry the film, but Aniston furnishes the aerodynamics. As she has been for so many male costars, she is a deft foil for Bateman, her souffle airiness keeping things from getting unbearably heavy. During The Switch, I thought of her terrific performance in the similarly themed The Object of My Affection and wondered why there aren't more movies built around her singular gifts.
The Switch *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck. With Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Jeff Goldblum, Juliette Lewis and Thomas Robinson. Distributed by Miramax Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (mature themes, procreative candor, brief nudity)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/