Movie review: ‘The Switch’

“The Switch,” the very dry romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman, is what you might call a Bate-and-switch affair. More his journey than hers, more satire than slapstick, the film is that rare example of rom-com about men, which turns out to be a nice switch indeed.

Bateman is Wally, one of those smart neurotics forever bemoaning his half-empty glass. He’s a Wall Street whiz, which in this day and age is reason enough for pessimism and paranoia, except that Wally’s business is booming and his best friend is Aniston’s Kassie, a beautiful network exec/girl next-door type (it’s a very good neighborhood).

Everything’s swell until Kassie decides she’s going solo on the baby front and Wally doesn’t even make the sperm donor short list. Bad feelings ensue and a friendship “timeout” soon follows, leaving Wally’s business partner and buddy, Jeff Goldblum, asking, “What are you, 6?”

That’s pretty much the question that co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (“Blades of Glory”) spend most of their time mulling, with Bateman taking the “Arrested Development” ethos, which positioned him as America’s favorite rational thinker (party pooper?), to new extremes. Paralyzed by the idea of commitment, Wally undermines all romance and protects his soft emotional underbelly with satirical barbs so sharp he should come with a warning label, as one blind date learns when he imagines a future for them that involves New Jersey suburbs and hating each other.

Given the origin of “The Switch,” a short story called “Baster” by Jeffrey Eugenides, author of “Middlesex” and a master at mental contortions and relationship confusions, Wally’s emotional slings and arrows cause just as much damage to him as anyone around him. And screenwriter Allan Loeb stays true to that same dysfunctional spirit.

But since this is also about romantic possibilities, Kassie and Wally reconnect at her insemination party. Unfortunately Roland ( Patrick Wilson) also enters the picture as the perfect donor, from the pecs to the Ivy-League pedigree and the perfect nemesis for Wally. Complications ensue, as they must. Somewhere between the anti-anxiety pills and the free-flowing alcohol that night, Wally switches the “ingredients,” a fact that gets lost in his drug-induced haze. Kassie gets pregnant and decamps to Michigan, leaving Wally to over-think things for the next seven years, and a few too many scenes, until a network job brings her, and 6-year-old Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), back into town and Wally’s life.

Now here’s where it gets interesting, because Wally finally has to figure out how to grow up, which is what the rest of the movie is concerned with. Between Bateman, the filmmakers, the smart script, and the talented and adorably soulful Robinson, we get a carefully calibrated comic look at male maturation. Sebastian’s chip-off-the-old-block angst is just what’s needed to crush Wally’s commitment issues, and Robinson does an excellent job of it.

Turning a romantic leading man into a character so prickly he’s hard to like, much less fall in love with, is a calculated risk. Though it doesn’t always gel, it does pay off in unexpected ways. By making Bateman’s existential crisis central, it takes some of the pressure off Aniston and allows her to slip into the sort of character-driven, smaller-scale relationship ensemble work that fits her best.

Here she moves through the film effortlessly adjusting Kassie’s emotional colors, slipping into friend, girlfriend and mommy mode as needed, reminding us just how good she was at sharing center stage in “Friends.” (It also makes it easier to forget about the spring fiasco of “The Bounty Hunter” and last year’s “Love Happens.”)

Since Aniston’s strength is in being likable rather than sexy, the movie is less romance, in the kissy-moony-hopelessly devoted sense, than comedy. In that Bateman proves a good foil whether locked in that “will they or won’t they?” tango with Kassie, jockeying for position with Roland or getting advice from Goldblum’s Leonard, who seems as amused as I was that he is the voice of reason in that guy-always-on-the-make way of his.

“The Switch” has many of the same virtues of 2002’s “About a Boy,” with Hugh Grant excellent in a similar role. The film also plays with the difficulties of late-entry fatherhood that “The Kids Are All Right” handles so brilliantly. Though the film never quite rises to the level of either, the filmmakers show enough restraint to keep things interesting, Aniston and Bateman keep things both light and dark when they should, and Robinson’s Sebastian steals everyone’s heart.