An ineluctable cloud of melancholy hangs over The Switch (Miramax), directed by Josh Gordon and Will Speck from a New Yorker short story by Jeffrey Eugenides. This isn't because the story is particularly sad—in fact, the rough edges of the original story (the social satire, the presence of abortion as a plot element) have all been smoothed away. No, the sadness comes from the audience's sense that inside this slick, conventional romantic comedy there's a tender, scruffy little movie struggling to get out. When you laugh at a line in The Switch, the laughter contains an element of surprise: Wow, I can't believe a character in this movie said something funny.
Ultimately The Switch can't escape the constraints of its own formula: It's a Hollywood rom-com through and through, complete with quirky best friends, third-act musical montages, and reaction shots from dogs. But that weird little spark of life keeps struggling to make its presence known right up to the bitter (happy) end. Much of the spark derives from the performances of the two leads, both deft comedians who deserve better. Jason Bateman, as the repressed Wall Street analyst Wally, does something that's unusual for a male romantic lead: He refuses to ingratiate himself, either to his potential romantic partner or to us. Throughout the film, Wally remains a hypochondriac who is standoffish and emotionally remote. He's funny and likable, yes—after all, this is Jason Bateman we're talking about—but he's also a real misanthrope with issues that falling in love seems unlikely to fix. As Kassie, Wally's longtime best friend and sort-of long-ago girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston gets a less complex role. (The idea of a not-nice female lead is still a bridge too far for Hollywood romantic comedy.) But Aniston's ability to project both vulnerability and pluck, combined with what we know (or think we know) about her offscreen life as a perpetual singleton, makes Kassie a believably conflicted character.
A successful TV producer in her late 30s, Kassie has made up her mind to get pregnant on her own. She coolly sizes up potential sperm donors on Craigslist and on the street, oblivious to the "What am I, chopped liver?" expression on Wally's lovelorn face. After choosing her man, a wholesome, outdoorsy jock named Roland (Patrick Wilson), Kassie throws herself an "insemination party" (an event I pray never takes place outside of high-concept comedies). Wally gets so drunk—realistically, depressingly, un-cutely drunk—that he winds up in Kassie's bathroom, replacing Roland's sperm sample with one of his own. (This scene steers as clear of coarse grossout comedy as a scene involving masturbation and sperm-switching could reasonably be expected to do.)
The next morning, thanks both to his overconsumption of alcohol and his skill at repressing important truths, Wally awakes with a whopping hangover but no memory of the sample-switch incident. Kassie gets pregnant, moves to the Midwest to raise her son, and comes back to New York seven years later with a kid in tow (the winning Thomas Robinson), who's a solemn-faced ringer for his neurotic bio-dad. Gradually, in conversation with his manic officemate (Jeff Goldblum), Wally begins to recollect what happened the night of that fateful bender. Should he tell Kassie the truth and try, against all odds, to win her trust again? Even if she is starting to fall for the kayak-toting lug she believes is her son's real father?
All this sounds so contrived and hoop-jumping, and, for long stretches, especially when a gratuitous Bateman voiceover kicks in, it is. But there are unexpected flashes of wit throughout, especially in the scenes where Wally and the little boy cautiously begin to bond: "How's school?" "Why?" "Because you're a kid and there's nothing else to talk about." The development of Aniston and Bateman's romance isn't altogether believable—we see his secret longing for her, but never hers for him. But the development of the father-son relationship is handled with a refreshing lack of sentimentality. If nothing else, The Switch will take the prize for 2010's tenderest scene involving a delousing.
Bateman's understated performance wrings laughs out of the smallest gestures: When he pretends to nod off for a moment during Aniston's encomium to her beau, it's funnier than any scripted comeback could have been. And Goldblum turns every one of his reasonably funny lines (from a screenplay by Allan Loeb) into a perfectly aimed comic dart. Whenever he comes onscreen, the audience snaps to attention. Whatever the prescription is for what ails contemporary romantic comedy—a sickness of which The Switch is, disappointingly, more symptom than cure—it should involve at least a tincture of Jeff Goldblum.