As a rule, Richard Burton acted stupendously well in stupendously bad films. Jennifer Aniston has mastered half that duality. The Switch, her latest film, is comfort-zone Aniston: a charmless rom-com with a crass attempt at eroticism — Toy Story’s more titillating, to be honest.
Cliché is The Switch’s currency. A pallid dawn rises over New York’s landmarks and we are taken back seven years. It is breakfast time. An aging girl-next-door (Aniston) tells her lachrymose friend and former lover Wally (Jason Bateman) that she is seeking a sperm donor. ‘The clock has struck,’ she says, to crown the cliché. Cue three minutes of scrotal innuendo, references to cervical mucus and the inevitable semen gag that was so banal I’ve forgotten it.
Naturally, Aniston won’t countenance asking for the pining Bateman’s sperm because the film wouldn’t last 20 minutes if she did. Instead, she chooses a chisel-jawed Ivy Leaguer with a penchant for baseball metaphors.
As I understand it, artificial insemination takes place in the sterile surrounds of a fertility clinic. Not so on Upper West Side, it seems. Aniston’s friend Debbie, played by the excruciating Juliette Lewis, throws a ‘sperm-donor’s party’ — a concept so hideous it may actually exist.
Halfway through this seminal shindig, the donor slopes off to a bathroom. Later, a drunken Bateman stumbles into the same bathroom and knocks the sample from the cistern where it was inexplicably left. Seed sullies linoleum and Juliette Lewis’s outré party is potentially ruined. Thinking quickly, Bateman vows to save the day and searches for pictorial assistance. But this is a single woman’s bathroom and inspiration came there none from the pages of House & Garden. Unperturbed by this setback he eventually refills the bottle and places it next to the dental floss. You are spared, thank God, the indignity of an insemination scene played for laughs.
In the sober light of morning, Bateman has no recollection of his heinous undertakings and returns to doomsaying. A short while later the pregnant Aniston leaves for Minnesota, only to return seven years later with a child who is the spitting image of her old friend, but she wants to marry the donor, only he isn’t…
My mind wandered, lost among infinite possibilities. Did I turn the gas off? Who to back in the Arc de Triomphe? How much does a pint of milk cost? Jennifer Aniston is not a good enough actress to sustain a film as bad as this. She lacks the cutting wit and coquettishness of, say, Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn, or even Cameron Diaz. It is extraordinary how anonymous she is on screen. I can’t recall a single line she delivered or look she gave. I do have vague memories of the odd trademark hair-flick, though those may have been from another film.
Her shortcomings are exposed by Jeff Goldblum, whose cameo halts the relentless scatology and self-pity. He has the ability to captivate when others induce narcolepsy. He shoots-up his scenes in The Switch with an apologetic twinkle that says, ‘I know how bad this is. Actually, I reckon it’s worse. But here’s trying.’ His comic timing is immaculate and you chuckle at jokes that aren’t remotely funny. He forms an all-singing all-dancing personality that banishes Aniston to the periphery of her own film.
Goldblum even tries to rouse Bateman from his seat at the salon for the morose; a task that proves beyond even Goldblum’s talents. To be fair, Bateman and his character improve with time. He develops some chemistry with his lost son — Thomas Robinson’s precocious but vulnerable Sebastian. The scene where ‘Uncle Wally’ attends to Sebastian’s head-lice in Aniston’s absence is irresistibly kitsch, if you like that sort of thing. But their exchanges are tepid overall, starved by the awful script and Bateman’s unstoppable Eeyore impression. So, this odious short film becomes seemingly interminable. At one point Bateman says, ‘I’m bored. Let’s go for a kebab,’ echoing my very thoughts.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 4, 2010