“The pillow is a bitch. It’s totally replacing you.” Such is the wisdom offered by “Playground Dad,” the two-scene, five-or-so-minute role occupied by Anthony Anderson in The Back-up Plan. The pillow in question is one of those long snoogle types, designed to bring nighttime comfort to pregnant women and — apparently — inspire dread in men. Playground Dad has been around this block repeatedly, and now just rolls with the crises that come as a matter of course with wives and kids.
This makes Playground Dad an ideal best friend for a rom-com lead, except that he doesn’t have a name or even much of a friendship with this film’s bland and beleaguered lead, Stan (Alex O’Loughlin). In fact, the entirety of their relationship appears on screen, beginning when Playground Dad first spots Stan stumbling through the playground gate, his face contorted by fear and anxiety and his hands in his pockets. Playground Dad thinks he’s a molester, until he finds out the guy’s just in a daze following yet another spat with his pregnant girlfriend Zoe (Jennifer Lopez). Aha, nods Playground Dad knowingly. Stan sputters, “Screw that pillow.” Like any best friend worth his salt, Playground Dad brings the gag: “You might have to. I did.”
Believe it or not, this is one of the cleverer lines in The Back-up Plan, a film that is not just formulaic, but also gives the formula a bad name. Though the men spend some time commiserating over juice boxes and observing Playground Dad’s child eat dirt and play with poop, they’re not really the point here. Or rather, their complete befuddlement by pregnancy is sort of a point, or a joke, or something. In any event, much of the movie is given over to showing men’s horror at women’s fierce irrationality and hormonal swinging. Alas.
In Zoe’s case, it appears she’s a bit unhinged even before she conceives. A Manhattan pet shop owner (a gimmick that occasions a visit from Cesar Millan, who has to tell Zoe and Stan they’re disrupting his calm, assertive energy), Zoe is defined almost by her desire to be pregnant and then her pregnancy. Her first scene is in the insemination doctor’s office, her gaze drifting to the chipped paint on her toenails. “If I were really doing this,” she thinks in voiceover, “I’d get a pedicure.” By this she means if she were on a date to have sex, the way she had once thought she’d get pregnant. But because she hasn’t “found the One” (she actually talks like this), she’s landed on the idea of having a baby on her own — the titular plan.
This leads directly — and I mean directly, the moment she leaves the doctor’s office — to her first encounter with Stan, with whom she falls in love almost instantly. Why? “He’s very real and funny and different,” she tells her assisted-living Nana (Linda Lavin, who mostly looks as pained as you feel). Such twaddle passes for logic in the wacky world of pregnant ladies, who also sleep with long pillows and eat fried chicken in bed. Besides, Nana, smiles, it’s a sign that her granddaughter is finally getting over her self-protective independence, premised on her dead mom and absent father. That’s not to say Zoe spends a whole lot of time thinking through her “issues.” Her shorthand trauma actually serves an opposite function — once you know it, the movie can stop trying to make Zoe make sense.
This means that when she treats Stan badly — accusing him of abandoning her, of not wanting to be a dad — she’s not really being “herself,” but only a selfish and mean-spirited temporary incarnation. In case you don’t recognize this cliche, the film underlines: Stan makes and sells cheese for a living, and so, after one especially difficult fight, he devises one called “Zoe,” which he describes as “stubborn, overly suspicious, and distrustful of men.” Ha ha!
The pregnancy = lunacy gimmick produces a load of jokes, some slapsticky, others just obnoxious. But whether she’s slipping in mud or panting with hormones-induced desire, La Lopez is reduced here to shabby comedy, a few steps below even the frothy-ish fare of Maid in Manhattan, which at least offered a glance at working class Hispanic woes. This movie’s broad humor is unkind and unfunny: Zoe is overcome by urges to shop for baby clothes, stuff messy food in her mouth, join a touchy-feely support group (who invite her to an at-home birth accompanied by a drum and chanting), climb into a mucky city dumpster, and routinely pick fights with her man. It’s never completely clear why he’s so committed to her — perhaps it’s the fact that her makeup is always perfect, in the rain or on the gynecologist’s table or on doused with hose water. Or maybe it’s because that’s his mission in movie-life, to be the stalwart, earnest, hard-abbed One.
He certainly doesn’t have much going on elsewhere. Even when he does get a moment apart from Zoe, it’s only so he can go talk about her with his best friend, Playground Dad.