I’m not the first to notice that this has been the season of sperm-donor comedies: The Back-Up Plan, The Kids Are All Right and now The Switch all revolve around artificial insemination. It is the new “meet cute”--so much for bumping into each other on the street!--and it shows that we’ve come a long way in accepting the different paths people take when they choose to start families. And yet no matter how the families begin, in these films they always end the same way, with an old-school edge, as Willa Paskin succincitly summed up for Vulture: “In The Switch...the happy ending is a two-parent family. (Also the happy ending, give or take a dad, of The Back-Up Plan and The Kids Are All Right).”
Paskin made her point in the wake of a conservative attack on The Switch from Bill O’Reilly who claimed that it promoted the horrible scourge of single motherhood. Jennifer Aniston, the star of The Switch got into a dust-up with O’Reilly last week about artificial insemination, family values, and fatherhood, which ended with her zinging him thus: “many women dream of finding Prince Charming (with fatherly instincts), but for those who’ve not yet found their Bill O’Reilly, I’m just glad science has provided a few other options.” Burn.
Good for Aniston, and good for The Switch for paying repeated, if ultimately undermined, lip service to the notion that women “are doing it for themselves.” Aniston’s character Kassie, who decides to conceive a child with a donor because she’s tired of waiting around for the perfect man, is repeatedly praised by everyone around her as a risk-taker and someone who knows what she wants. The only problem is that her best friend Wally (Jason Bateman) with whom she shares some long-simmering romantic tension, thinks he knows what she needs, at least in his deep subconscious. At her “insemination party” he ends up getting drunk and high on pills, and in his inebriated state he accidentally spills her “donation” out of its cup. Panicked, he replaces it with his own “offering.” He promptly forgets what he’s done due to guilt and substance abuse, and Kassie conceives and moves home to be with her parents for a while as she raises her child in a more supportive environment.
A few years later, when Kassie moves back to New York, the adorable child she has in tow, Sebastian, shares Wally’s neurotic, morose personality and looks, and the two bond. Wally, who is emotionally withdrawn and who has frequently fled when things get too intense between himself and Kassie, eventually melts at the boy’s touch. And then Wally suddenly remembers just what he did that night when he was drunk, and realizes with horror that he’s “hijacked her pregnancy.” It being a romantic comedy, he can’t bring himself to tell Kassie the truth until she’s about to be proposed to by the brawny, Nordic-looking guy she thinks was her donor. Needless to say, she doesn’t take kindly to the news.
It being a romantic comedy, however, the three of them: hijacker, hijackee, and product of hijacking, are destined to be together and Wally is not only soon forgiven, but promptly married and given a chance to be a dad at last. Amanda sums up why this premise is problematic:
Switching some other dude's sperm out for your own to get a woman pregnant who has rejected you (and having this be the catalyst for changing her mind) is about the most potent symbol I can think of for the belief that women don't know what they really want, so they have to be shown. With a little force, if necessary.
The only plot point in the film that ameliorates the intrinsic problem of the premise is the fact that Kassie isn’t clearly the rejector and Wally the rejectee in their relationship. It’s hinted that he disappeared repeatedly when they once dated and didn’t go on a vacation with her because he was scared of his own feelings. Later in the film, she tries to bring up their romantic connection several times and he balks. He doesn’t attempt to win her over by implanting her, unknowingly, with his sperm--he accidentally wins himself over by meeting his child and realizing he’s capable of being a family man.
Still, her body remains the experimental ground for his emotional development and her work raising Sebastian is glossed over by the admittedly charming scenes of Wally’s bonding with the quirky, un-athletic child who has inherited dad’s hypochondria. As in the Jeffrey Eugenides story Baster from which the movie was drawn, the tale is ultimately Wally’s, and Kassie (Tomasina in the story) and her womb are a secondary players. Interestingly enough, in the original story, Wally and Tomasina once conceived a child together which she then aborted, so the misogynist revenge overtones Amanda picked up from the trailers are even more overt in the source material. The Eugenides story is less sweet, more darkly satirical and cruel to all its characters than the more humane film, and Wally doesn’t spill the sperm donation accidentally but very on purpose. The story ends as Wally looks down and recognizes his features in the baby. Its implied that he accepts that he won’t be part of the child’s life, that his revenge was hollow.
As a coda to discussing all that’s problematic with the concept of the film and its implementation, I confess that I genuinely enjoyed it. It even cheered me up after a difficult Monday. The acting from both leads and secondary characters won me over, and in between glib rom-com cliches, the script was quite clever. The scenes between both Aniston and Bateman and their child were touching and sweet without being sentimental.
So there you go.
I never understood how anyone could enjoy Knocked Up given its awful underlying premise, and I’m sure that some feminist viewers would feel the same way about The Switch. But this is a gentler, more offbeat movie at its core, and it doesn’t attempt to posit itself as stating some fundamental truth about men and women. It’s concerned only with its cast of characters, which saves it from Apatow-level preachiness. Dana Stevens wrote that “ inside this slick, conventional romantic comedy there's a tender, scruffy little movie struggling to get out” and despite the problematic structure of the plot, its soft yet sharp approach, so rare in romantic comedies, spoke to me. It’s too bad that films such as this one have to be squeezed into a Hollywood formula, and that includes sidelining the concerns of the female character to make the happy ending an illogically conventional one.