It looks like a chick flick and stars chick-flick staple Jennifer Aniston, but the little secret of "The Switch" is that it's actually about men. And not necessarily the Y-chromosome set at its finest. Men who can't be honest with themselves or the people around them. Men whose maturity levels are shown up by a child.
"Jen's character is obviously an important part of the movie. But the movie really is about the journey of a guy who's not fully evolved or particularly well-balanced," says co-director Josh Gordon.
"The Switch" tells the tale of Kassie (Aniston) who, in choosing a sperm donor, overlooks her neurotic best friend Wally (Jason Bateman) in favor of Roland (Patrick Wilson), an alpha-male with a million-dollar smile.
Already feeling inadequate, Wally, while blackout drunk at Kassie's "pregnancy party," switches Roland's sperm with his own in a startling but still comic scene involving fertility charts, a lab sample cup and Diane Sawyer, leaving Kassie to unknowingly impregnate herself with Wally's seed. When she shows up seven years later with her preternaturally anxious son Sebastian (the talented Thomas Robinson), Wally begins to develop a relationship with the boy while being less than forthcoming with Kassie.
"If Wally was any smarter he wouldn't have made the switch in the first place," says Bateman of his character. "But once he did, he needs to find a way to handle this new information."
In a summer when "Grown Ups" proved surprisingly potent at the box office, "The Switch" showcases a different kind of immaturity -- not the gross-out humor of Adam Sandler and David Spade, but outwardly presentable men whose well-scrubbed facade conceals the arrested development within.
Bateman's Wally is a successful Wall Street analyst with a posh Manhattan apartment, but it hardly stops him from emotional cowardice or endless anxiety. "Beady-eyed man-child," a vagrant calls out like an oracle to Wally at the opening of the film.
"In the last 20 years, Hollywood movies have become so engineered for likability. Inconsistencies or unlikable qualities are genetically bred out of characters," Gordon says. "Wally remains damaged to the end." (Incidentally, the Jeffrey Eugenides short story "Baster," on which the film is based, as well as early drafts of the film's script, describes a lead character with not only a neurotic but a nebbishy quality; Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman were at various times considered for the role.)
Although it's being marketed as a romantic comedy and certainly has some of its trappings, the movie's heart beats to a more serious rhythm. With a script from Allan Loeb -- the writer of "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," who's no stranger to the subject of flawed masculinity -- "The Switch" depicts a successful but lonely man in his late 30s. In so doing, it touches a third rail that few mainstream comedies get close to: the subject of male anxieties about singlehood and childlessness.
"To me, the core of the story is about Wally becoming a father," Loeb says. "The experience I and many of my friends have is getting close to 40 and not yet being a father. This is about how a man found his way to become one, even if it was very unconventional and very bombastic." (Co-director Will Speck and Gordon are married with children; Loeb is not.)
The movie's core also lies in its relationships between males -- a poignant bedtime scene between Bateman and Robinson, the banter between Wally and a colleague-mentor named Leonard who has his own issues with women (a scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum) and the dynamic between the unreflective confidence of Wilson's Roland and Bateman's introspective anxiousness. On the other hand, Kassie's lone meaningful female relationship, with friend Debbie (Juliette Lewis), is slight and forgettable.
All of that is more than enough to set "The Switch" apart from "The Back-Up Plan," the Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy about artificial insemination -- though the premises of the two were similar enough that "The Switch" producers at one early point wondered about legal action against the CBS Films production.
There's an appropriate parallel behind the camera to the film's male dynamics with Speck and Gordon, who are the rare non-fraternal tandem directors.
The filmmakers also dealt with themes of masculinity -- and the overcompensation that can accompany those who are insecure with it -- in their previous movie "Blades of Glory" and Will Ferrell's lead character of Chazz Michael Michaels. Says Speck, without much irony, "There's something about the struggle of a sensitive man that we really relate to." Gordon adds that both movies are about "men finding a little bit of maturity, a little bit of peace."
"The Switch" does, of course, make some hay of Aniston's pregnancy, which prompted the actress to note in promoting the film that "women are realizing it more and more, knowing that they don't have to settle with a man just to have that child" -- and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly to fire back that the actress is "throwing a message out to 12-year-olds and 13-year-olds that, hey, you don't need a guy, you don't need a dad."
But the filmmakers say that much of this debate misses the point. "It's ironic what Bill O'Reilly is saying about the dad not getting enough credit," Gordon says. "If you see this movie, you leave with this appreciation of how difficult it is for men to step up."
Adds Speck, "A lot of the conversation now is surrounding single motherhood and insemination. But the truth is, a huge part of the movie is coming to terms with the emotions that surround being a man who's overlooked."