[22 November 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Hollywood has had a love/love even more relationship with human biology ever since it learned that audiences adore movies about babies and those who make/forsake/break/berate them. In almost every Romantic Comedy, familial drama, or cinematic statement regarding the battle of the sexes, reproduction becomes the go-to move to motivate the characters, alter their situation, or wrap up the issues with a soft, pink, cuddly bundle of infant joy. It’s a salve, a balm for what we don’t want to admit - that interpersonal interaction is complex and there is more to kids than cute, vulnerable, and innocent. A movie like Delivery Man would benefit from seeing the big picture when it comes to anyone’s part in parenting. Instead, it hijacks a high concept, throws in a slowly spiraling downward star, and prays that paternity helps. It doesn’t. Instead, it simply dulls the truth.
Twenty years ago, David Wozniak (a miserable Vince Vaughn) was so desperate for money that he donated sperm to a local fertility clinic. Using the name “Starbuck”, he was a frequent client, and thanks to his handy offerings, he is now the proud—if completely clueless—father of 533 children. When a class action lawsuit is filed by 142 of his “offspring”, wanting to know the identity of their “father,” David seeks advice from his lawyer pal (Chris Pratt). He then decides to surreptitiously insert himself into the lives of some of his “kids”. Along the way, we get a subplot involving a debt to the mob, a sullen gal pal (Cobie Smulders) who has gotten pregnant and isn’t sure if David is Dad material, and a collection of test tube progeny who run the gamut from actors to addicts, the mentally challenged and the emotionally wrecked. Naturally, David works his wannabe poppa magic on all of them, leading to the kind of cloying climax reserved for a Lifetime movie.
As his fanbase shrinks and his acting options simultaneously dry up, Vince Vaughn is at a crossroads. His last six films—Four Christmases, Couples Retreat, The Dilemma, The Watch, Lay the Favorite, and The Internship—have wavered between barely watchable to unmitigated disasters and yet he remains a name casting directors call on when they need a supposedly snarky, smart alecky counterpoint. He’s rarely a romantic lead and can apparently only garner laughs from some kind of partnership. So when French-Canadian director Ken Scott was given the chance to do a shot for shot remake of his festival fave, Starbuck, the question becomes “why Vince Vaughn?” In this critics mind, the only answer could be that, when trying to figure out who else has experience remaking a movie scene for scene without adding anything of value or significance to the original, everyone immediately thought Psycho and then followed up with “who played Norman Bates in that?”
For his part, Vaughn is relatively blameless. Yes, his presence is particularly off-putting especially when you consider that his character is a working class schlub with commitment issues who can’t seem to understand that you shouldn’t gamble away money you don’t have or insert yourself into the lives of individuals who really can’t comprehend your motives. In fact, one of the massive flaws in both of Scott’s films is the concept of purpose. Why would David be interested in those he sired? It’s not like he really cares, since the set-up suggests he is only doing this to prove something to his girlfriend. Also, what would the kids get out of it? It’s not like all 533 can share David, and once the 142 find out that he’s a lowly meat packer with plentiful personal issues, would we be looking at rejection replacing the realization of who their accidental daddy was?
Apparently, Scott is stuck in the whole “nuclear family” ideal, the notion that no clan is complete until all traditional roles have been filled, no matter the man in the outdated ideal. There’s a subliminal suggestion that none of David’s unplanned pride are happy without a dad, and the moms are mostly MIA. There’s also an even more infuriating message that suggests that fathers don’t have to partake in the dirtier, hands-on aspect of child-rearing. There’s no late night feedings, no grade school pageants for our hero to attend. Instead, all he’s proving is that, once all the heavy lifting is done, a man can walk into a confused post-adolescent’s life and work a kind of motion picture magic on their life.
Now, we aren’t suggesting that Delivery Man shy away from its overly precious premise, just treat it with a bit more realism. One imagines David ducking out on most of his attempted contacts, unsure how he can truly help. Also, at least a few of those who find him should be disappointed in his lax man-child meaning. Instead, Scott strives for a flawed fairytale where DNA defies the truth and all is right as long as genetics are involved. With an ending that goes for schmaltz and the ever-present idea of parenting as part of the normative natural order constantly upheld, Delivery Man doesn’t deviate from its Hollywood hampered preoccupations. It’s easy to see what such a film was greenlit - it speaks to the mainstream moviegoer in ways that are easy to understand and within expectations. Anyone looking for something new, novel, creative, or just plain fun should seek solace elsewhere.
As for Vince Vaughn, well, apparently, no one learned the lessons of Eddie Murphy. While it might seem like a viable career path to move from raunchy, R-rated fare to friendlier, family-oriented material, not everyone can make such a transition work. Murphy did, more or less, but he lost a lot of comedic cred in the process. The same can be said for former Wedding Crasher Vaughn. Where once he was the frat house hero, something like Delivery Man suggests he’s one more flop away from an FX sitcom. It’s not that the movie is totally terrible, it’s just incredibly misguided. Ken Scott can save his money and work on his war stories about surviving the brutal show business machine. As for his leading man, there may be no hope.