Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The Switch is being touted for its on-screen pairing of “longtime friends” Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston. Which is odd because I found their scenes together in Josh Gordon and Will Speck’s romantic comedy about a 40-year-old single woman who sires a son artificialy with sperm that unbeknownst to her came from the loins her best friend to be its weakest aspect. Bateman whose improvisational wit is widely heralded appears tentative and deferential in the presence of Aniston as if he’s wary of going all-out for fear of eclipsing his co-star who also happens to be an executive producer on the film.
Their strained comic rapport makes for a flat and largely unfunny first act in which it is explained how Wally (Bateman) a cranky neurotic investment banker inadvertently impregnates his baby-mad best friend Kassie (Aniston). The whole contrived episode culminates during an “insemination party ” a peculiar New York City cougar ritual presided over by Kassie’s new-age pal Debbie (Juliette Lewis) wherein Wally drunkenly substitutes his semen for that of the Nordic Adonis (Patrick Wilson) originally designated for the job.
But just when The Switch’s foreboding intro has us steeling ourselves for 90 more minutes of high-concept rom-com pabulum the film pull a dirty trick: Its story fast-forwards seven years during which Kassie returns to her native Minnesota gives birth to a son named Sebastian and is lured back to present-day New York six-year-old Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) in tow by an irresistible job offer. It’s a shamelessly manipulative ploy bringing in the adorable pint-sized ringer off the bench but it turns out to be a welcome one breathing much-needed life into The Switch’s moribund proceedings.
Sebastian is truly a miniature version of his father whom he knows only as “Uncle” Wally with all of his intelligence and neuroses but none of the weary cynicism that adulthood inevitably breeds in such types. Bateman is clearly more comfortable — and a lot funnier — around Robinson and The Switch’s most memorable moments are found in the bond they develop.
But alas The Switch is a rom-com and so space must be allotted for the less appealing “rom” portion of its story. Kassie spends the bulk of the film believing that the Nordic Adonis is Sebastian’s true father despite the fact that he bears no resemblance to him whatsoever and when Wally finally confesses to his sperm-swapping she goes predictably ballistic renouncing him entirely. But the two are destined to be together so we are told and their estrangement is a brief one — lasting only a somber montage or two. When they’re inevitably united (if you consider this a spoiler you are beyond hope) we’re happy about it if only because no child should be forced to grow up with Jennifer Aniston as a single mother.