I think Jennifer Aniston is probably doomed to live under a certain glass ceiling. Right now Tinseltown is talking about how she can’t open a movie on her own, how Jason Bateman isn’t a sturdy enough male co-star to open a movie with her, and the mediocrity of her latest film, The Switch. But the real problem is simply that The Switch is too intelligent and mature for its audience, and that it’s being marketed somewhat disingenuously. I finally went to see The Switch with relatively low expectations, anticipating a moderately successful comedy at best. And I was shocked at how good it was.
Much of the problem is the fact that the movie isn’t really a comedy. Sure, there are some comedic elements and moments sprinkled throughout, most of which have been included in the trailers. You can’t have actors as intelligent, likeable, and honest as Aniston, Bateman, and co-stars Patrick Wilson, Jeff Goldblum, and Juliette Lewis, and not have them find the humanity or sense of humor in behavior, particularly when the set-up of the film has to do with a drunken sabotage of artificial insemination. But the irony is that the film is sad, sweet, and beautiful. And comedic hook aside, the rest of the film has little to with that kind of high contrivance.
There’s a scene where Bateman has a first date with a character played by Caroline Dhavernas that represents why, I think, audiences and critics are shunning this movie. At the beginning of the conversation Bateman is charming and self-deprecating, talking about where a relationship between the two of them might go. It starts amusingly, and his date flirts and laughs as Bateman picks apart behaviors and the way people can sell themselves short or cause their own self-defeat. But he keeps going. He keeps going to such a degree that it’s no longer flirty banter, and obviously comes from a place of emotional woundedness, of introspection, of regret. It’s quite obvious that all of the character flaws he’s describing, all of the ways his personality can veer into self-sabotage and could potentially destroy a marriage, aren’t just off-the-cuff humor, but the result of well thought-out, existential meditations on his state of being. Even when he realizes where he’s led himself, and tries to end his observations with a hook of humor, at that point he’s gone too far and his attempt to soften his own negativity plays all the more sadly. And his date swills her wine, nerve-wracked by what she’s gotten herself into and where it could lead, and there’s even a look in her eye that she likes this guy enough that she could potentially follow him into some doomed relationship, and suffer there with him.
The Switch is not a romantic comedy. It’s not very romantic, and it’s more of a drama than anything else. It’s certainly not Jennifer Aniston’s movie. No, it’s a film that belongs to Bateman’s character, Wally Mars. It’s about the way he sees the world, this neurotic, somewhat depressive, self-doubting, and often unliked character. And it’s not that he’s a bad person. He has a good sense of humor, and when the chips are down, he’s a stand-up guy. Let’s just say he has a difficult personality, and he knows it. He’s had a lot of bad breaks, not the least of which is that he’s in love with a woman who has emasculated him to the point that she doesn’t even consider him a viable sperm donor. And he wears those wounds, and they color the way he acts and reacts in the world.
But the movie is so-well written, and there’s a determination there to be fair to every character. Aniston’s Kassie Larson, despite the way she overlooks Wally, is never a shrew. She’s simply a vulnerable woman at a crossing in her life where she has to make a tough decision. And she’s not getting back what she needs from the men in her life, Wally included. Patrick Wilson, playing sperm donor Roland, is certainly an archetype of the athletic golden boy, except that he’s not. His own marriage has problems, and he’s emotionally vulnerable himself. He could very easily have been written as a two-dimensional egotistical stuffed shirt, but the script is too smart and the actors too agile to let that happen.
This is a film that takes place in the real world, or at least a realist world. At one point in the narration, Wally says that some people find love at first sight, and they get to live life inside of a pop song, and isn’t that great for them. But for most people who aren’t living inside of a movie, life isn’t that easy; and the characters in this film reflect that. So it makes sense how audiences coming into the theatre expecting a joke-filled light comedy, and are instead served up a cynical, questioning comedic drama, are having problems enjoying themselves.
When Wally Mars finally meets the fruit of his loins, it’s an awakening for the character. And there’s such pain and sadness, and simultaneously joy, and confusion, about how to step up and do the right thing, or at least how to simply acknowledge the irony of fate and the synchronous way miracles can happen, that it’s truly touching and even beautiful. But light, disposable comedy it ain’t. This is the kind of film that would probably need to have bigger names, be marketed as Oscar fodder, and released in the autumn to really work and sell. Or to be marketed as Juno, but without the snarky dialogue. But not as an end-of-the-summer release, being poised as a more conventional romantic comedy with a healthy side of broad, gross-out comedy. That’s simply not serving the aims or content of the film.
Aniston seems to have this problem often, and I believe it’s because she has fairly good and eclectic taste, and is interested in real people and the kind of mature themes that we have to deal with in everyday life. Sure, she’ll pump out her share of Hollywood pleasers, but unlike some starlets, she seems to get bored of doing only exclusively those kinds of movies, and is always looking for something more realistic and rooted in darker, more complex emotions. The Break-Up. Her section of He’s Just Not That Into You. Management. The Good Girl. These are films that portray their characters too honestly and complexly to function as mindless, disposable entertainment. Yet Aniston seems to stay away from the truly dark and probing high-concept Oscar bait, the kind of films that would benefit from being marketed as counter-culture. No, she has the unfortunate tendency to be attracted to material this is dark and honest, but still aimed within the world of the realistic, which doesn’t always translate to everyone’s idea of palatable.
Patrick Wilson’s Roland is too nice, well-meaning, and determined to win over Sebastian for him to be a jerk who can be easily written off. Even though the audience is finally rooting against him, we like him and see how he could be the heroic protagonist if this were his film, and we even feel kind of bad about having to root against him. He’s simply a guy who’s a bit lost and adrift, but who wants to do right, much like Bateman’s Wally. And Sebastian himself is too complex a product of Wally’s genetic insecurities to be a disposable, typically-cute movie kid. He’s still cute, but he’s also wounded. And Wally is the only person who can really connect to him and see him. There’s a beauty in that, a man who can’t find himself, finding himself through an unexpected son, learning to love and to ask for love by being shown something bigger than himself.
It’s a smart, honest, emotionally-astute and truthful script, and unfortunately the film is struggling to find an audience right now largely because it’s being done a disservice by the marketing campaign. Patrick Wilson’s Roland talks quite a bit about the difficulties of life, and how it likes to throw us curve balls. Mainstream audiences don’t like to be thrown curve balls, they want a nice easy lob across the center of the plate. Perhaps in time, on DVD, The Switch will earn some respect and get its due as people are primed to expect that coming pitch. But like the road that Bateman’s Wally has to take in the film, it appears it may be uphill, and require quite a bit of due process.