It had to happen. Sperm Donor Dads: The Film Genre. Only slightly ahead of the zeitgeist culture curve, two relatively charming comedies duke it out for the hotly contested Smackdown title.
Mark Ruffalo’s shaggy, blissfully ignorant roue seed-guy of two (that we know of) takes on Jason Bateman’s neurotic and knowing father of one.
Lesbian moms Annette Bening and Julianne Moore up the ante just a bit on the A-List class-project The Kids Are All Right, and rom-com too-regular Jennifer Aniston depreciates indie-spirited The Switch a tad.
In This Corner
Jason Bateman plays Wally. Jennifer Aniston plays Kassie. With a K. That’s just about the most interesting thing about her. Wally loves her. He always has. But he’s her best friend. And her clock is ticking. And it would be too awkward to have a baby with her best friend. So — here comes the movie logic — hold onto your hats. She finds a married, too-good-to-be-true stranger and coaxes him into donating a cup of his best stuff. Not awkward at all. Are you with me so far? Because I know this sounds awful. But it’s not. Stuff happens to the stuff and paternity hijinks ensue. Here’s the thing though: You care.
In That Corner
Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play the long-married lesbian mothers of two almost-grown kids, both fathered by the same sperm donor. While their lives are well observed and sort of, well, normal and appropriately complex, family life — even unconventional family life — isn’t usually the stuff of drama. The plot fireworks ignite when the daughter comes of age and reaches out to meet her dad. Man-child cocksman and locavore Mark Ruffalo comes to dinner and… well, the organic compost hits the proverbial fan. Sperm dad interferes in surprising (and not at all surprising) ways in this up-till-now fairly functional family; he’s just scratching a perennial itch, trying on family life for size, filling a hole or two, and, for reasons the film never quite makes entirely clear, Julianne Moore taps that, and things get messy and threaten to fly apart.
While Aniston mixes up her considerable output, bouncing from big-budget studio tripe to maintaining her indie cred, her tabloid ubiquity and the film’s dopey off-key marketing might lead an audience to expect a by-the-textbook Rom-Com romp. In fact it’s not Aniston’s film at all; it’s Bateman’s, and the studio could have done itself a huge favor promoting him. In spite of obvious similarities, this enterprise is not the spiritual heir to J-Lo’s forgettable Back-Up Plan; more connected in tone and depth to indie titans Little Miss Sunshine and Juno, this isn’t hack stuff at all.
Directing team Josh Gordon and Will Speck defy all expectations with their follow-up to television’s execrably misbegotten Cavemen, the blessedly short-lived spin-off of the Geico Insurance ads. Allan Loeb’s script is fresh and surprising, funny and winning, especially in the first half, and Bateman’s performance is simply terrific throughout. His pained longing for the woman he loves and his connection with his biological son ring true and raise the emotional stakes much higher than the usual will-they-or-won’t-they, bullfeathers Rom-Com. Bateman, a father himself, plays the part with tremendous sympathy and delicacy. The kid, Thomas Robinson, makes an adorable little sad sack, and his on-screen chemistry with Bateman provides undeniable pleasures.
Aniston looks as lovely and tanned as ever; those impossibly blue eyes twinkle non-stop, and her hair is impeccable. That said, I never quite feel that she connects fully (or even tangentially) with her onscreen children when she plays mom; something essential in her remains withheld, and we’re left with the feeling that they’ve never really met.
Jeff Goldblum scores in a quirky turn as a longtime friend and work colleague of our hero. With Goldblum, a little goes a long way, but I miss him when I haven’t seen him for a while. The man can spin a normal line of dialogue into something unique and special, and no one does more with a really good zinger; he puts English on it, the consummate pool player with an expert backspin and perfect aim. He’s got plenty to work with here, and it’s a hoot watching him make the utmost of a second banana part.
The boys rule in this one, each one specific and true and funny. (Only prime stud select Patrick Wilson fails to soar; he’s achingly deliberate, dull as dishwater, and it strains credulity that Aniston’s supposedly intelligent character, however desperate, could fail to notice.)
The women are a little more generic; Aniston plays the woman who doesn’t love her best friend because he’s neurotic and a downer. We don’t know much more about her; she has cool jobs in broadcasting (first on The Charlie Rose Show, then at ABC) and her biological clock is ticking so loud it drowns out everything else. She throws an awkward insemination party for herself, inviting a bunch of her single women friends so generic they don’t even have names, except for make-up girl Debbie (Juliette Lewis), who’s so annoyingly crazy that even her best friend doesn’t like her much. It’s a weird little performance, but it’s nice to see Lewis having some fun instead of suffering. And Diane Sawyer has never been better.
In The Kids Are All Right, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) gets the rhythms of longterm marriage and family life exactly right, but her laid-back LA setting seems strangely underpopulated and slightly stuck in a groovier time. (It’s a kick to see America’s Next Top Model runner-up Yaya playing Hide The Boss’ Salami. Yeah. I watch ANTM and remember all their names. Wanna make something of it?)
The performances are mostly top-notch; no one’s afraid to play prickly and flawed, and all that texture and character fills every frame with recognizable behavior that’s rare. Human frailty has its day; everyone in the film makes mistakes and suffers serious consequences. The stakes are intimate, and every up and down beat in this slightly rocked lesbian marriage applies just as well in a more traditional family. The film comes at a particularly opportune time; gay marriage is such a hot-button issue, and Cholodenko’s honest and upfront take on an un-idealized union reminds all of us that marriage is an institution made, sustained, sanctified and threatened mostly by the people in it. It’s a human right all right, a choice that shouldn’t be denied, and it’s just plain hard work. Those who choose not to marry, who fear commitment or who just don’t get around to making the decision, circle around life a bit disconnected.
Untethered and dangerously free, Sperm Dad comes and goes at his own increasingly random and unfulfilling discretion — unmarried, incapable of commitment, he’s a forager, an interloper so desperate for connection that he’s willing to steal and take shortcuts to feel fully alive.
The Kids Are All Right is all right. Parts of it are much better than that. But Jason Bateman totally won my heart. Call me crazy. I’ll recommend you catch both, perhaps on DVD, but I give a very slight edge to the drunk guy on drugs who switched his sperm for love over the guy who sold his for cash. Times may change, but the melody of romance lingers on. The Switch.