This has been the summer of sperm donors. April saw the release of The Back-up Plan, where Jennifer Lopez got inseminated on the same day she met the man of her dreams. More recently, The Kids Are All Right provided a nuanced portrait of a lesbian couple dealing with their children’s interest in getting to know their biological father.
The latest Hollywood take on artificial insemination, The Switch, gives us Kassie (Jennifer Aniston). She wants a baby, but doesn’t have a husband or boyfriend to help her out. So she decides to recruit a sperm donor and throw an insemination party, a set up that suggests The Switch will be about the lengths women will go to in order to get pregnant and the emotional repercussions of such decisions. But the “switch” of the title actually refers to something that Kassie’s ex-boyfriend and now-BFF Wally (Jason Bateman) does instead.
In a fit of alcohol and jealousy, Wally replaces the chosen donor’s sperm with a deposit of his own. By doing so, he “hijacks” Kassie’s pregnancy and the movie itself. The result is that The Switch has little to do with motherhood and everything to do with what it means to be a father.
The possible answers to this question are duly complicated when, soon after the fateful switch, Kassie conveniently exiles herself to Minnesota, leaving Wally behind in New York City. Seven years later, she equally conveniently returns to NYC with her son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), who is now old enough to be both precociously funny and recognizably a chip off Wally’s neurotic block.
Their similarities help to underline The Switch‘s premise, that fathers and children share a magnetic attraction. Though the audience knows without a doubt that Sebastian is his son, the movie puts them through a series of comedic contrivances, beginning with Wally’s drug-induced amnesia about the switch. This allows him to “feel” like the boy’s father before he knows he actually is.
The highlight of the movie is watching Wally and Sebastian inevitably draw closer together. They inadvertently mimic each other’s motions, and both hum when they chew their food. There is a moment at the zoo when Wally explains what a hypochondriac is and a light of pure understanding goes on in the child’s eyes that is pitch perfect. Such details help to make their relationship plausible. Bateman helps his young co-star pull off a wonderful performance as the off-center Sebastian. Their scenes together are funny and touching, but never cloying. In fact, credit Bateman with making everyone around him better, including Jeff Goldblum, who is a hilarious sidekick.
On the other hand, we have Aniston. She may be the only movie star who never seems like the main character in her own movies. Though hers is usually the name above the title, she has a way of fading into the background. This is less a function of her acting than the scripts she chooses. Recently, she’s been picking roles where her main purpose is to support the men around her.
This particular male-centric film is loosely adapted from a short story by Jeffrey Eugenides called “Baster,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 1996. Told from Wally’s point of view, it traces his pining for a woman who is getting inseminated. But in the story, these two people share a deeper and more painful bond. During their short relationship, she got pregnant and had an abortion without consulting Wally. The story ends with the switch and Wally discovering he has successfully gotten her pregnant again. This means that when Wally switches the sperm in the story, it is a more vindictive and primal act. He is reclaiming the child he feels was taken away from him. Eugenides paints a picture of a man who is driven to produce children, but has no real desire to raise them.
The Switch turns this basic concept on its head, by changing Wally’s switch into something more like an accident. Instead, the movie’s Wally only wants to be a good dad, even when he doesn’t know the child is biologically his. Unlike the Eugenides story, which actually offers a more stereotypical view of modern fatherhood, The Switch takes the radical approach of assuming that the biological imperative behind fatherhood is the same as motherhood. Both men and women want to love their children.