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The Switch

Surprisingly Engaging

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

It took not one, but two directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck, to helm Jennifer Aniston’s latest romantic comedy, The Switch. That’s not entirely accurate, though.

Despite Aniston’s prominent placement in the television ads, trailers, and first-level credit, The Switch, Aniston’s character is secondary to the character, Wally Mars, played by Jason Bateman. The Switch centers on Wally’s engagingly convincing arc from selfish, repressed neurotic with commitment issues to a responsible adult. In romantic-comedy terms that kind of arc usually means (primarily heterosexual) monogamous bliss and children.

The Switch has one of the longest prologues in recent memory. A title card gives us the setting, “Seven years ago, New York City,” as Wally’s contemplative voiceover narration takes us to the crucial days and weeks in Wally and Kassie Larson’s (Aniston) relationship. They’re BFF (Best Friends Forever), who, early on tried dating each other, but failed to move forward. Wally, however, can’t admit to wanting more from Kassie and when she announces she wants to have a child via artificial insemination, he attempts to dissuade her from what he considers an ill-conceived decision.

Wally fails, of course (we wouldn’t have a film called The Switch otherwise). Rather than go for an anonymous sperm donor, Karen selects Roland (Patrick Wilson), a tall, athletic college professor hard up for money. Frustrated at the turn of events and his ability to tell Kassie how he really feels about her as a romantic partner, Wally gets drunk at the pregnancy party thrown by Kassie’s eccentric friend, Debbie (Juliette Lewis), ruins Roland’s donation, and substitutes his own sperm, then promptly blacks out.

Kassie conveniently moves away to Minnesota for seven years, then returns to New York City with her six-year old son, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), who shares more than a passing resemblance to Wally and his carefully cultivated neuroses. Sebastian is also curiously unathletic, something that confounds Roland who, newly divorced and eager to reconnect with his (non-existent) biological son, re-enters the picture — this time as Wally’s rival for Kassie’s romantic affections.

Calling The Switch isn’t a stretch; it’s completely accurate, but co-directors Gordon and Speck, working from Allan Loeb’s (Wall Street; Money Never Sleeps, Things We Lost in the Fire) script — itself based a short story written by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex, The Virgin Suicides) — keep most of the contrivances and coincidences to the first half of the film.

They also understand that moviegoers are more than willing to suspend disbelief where comedy is involved. Gordon and Speck also balance humor, some based on Wally’s neuroses, some on Kassie’s, and some on his relationship with the precocious Sebastian, with insight into the post-thirties, emotionally repressed, commitment-phobic male psyche (insert “arrested development” reference here).

Even more importantly, at least for Aniston’s non-fans, Gordon and Speck manage to work around Aniston’s limitations as an actress (i.e., an absence of dramatic range), partly by asking the bare minimum from her performance (which she delivers, if only barely) and having her play the second lead, meaning less screen time for her and more for Bateman and his character’s bumbling post-cool antics. Wally has exactly one male friend/sounding board/conscience, Leonard (a scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum), who also works with Wally in a financial services firm, but ultimately it’s the relationship between Wally and Sebastian that makes The Switch a surprisingly worthwhile moviegoing experience.