Romantic comedy makers, here’s some advice: When you’re pinpointing a male lead to star opposite a genre stalwart such as Jennifer Aniston, skew more toward the Jason Batemans of the world than the Matthew McConaugheys. The Arrested Development veteran’s appearance in The Switch, a top-notch valentine to New York City and parenthood being released during the summer doldrums, epitomizes the wisdom of this approach.

As neurotic, repressed financial analyst Wally Mars, Bateman turns the standard leading male archetype on its head. Out of a morass of clichés, from the When Harry Met Sally components of the narrative to the big climactic reveal, he makes stability sexy, offering an appealing regular-guy counterpart in the cold war with Patrick Wilson’s dreamboat Roland for the heart of Kassie (Aniston). Beneath the bundle of obsessions and fears is a smart, lonely man fighting for self-respect and the right to feel happy.

The picture, loosely adapted from the Jeffrey Eugenides story The Baster, offers a classic high concept to spur its protagonist’s journey toward maturity and self-understanding. A former couple, Kassie and Wally have remained friends since their breakup. Best friends, in fact, so when Kassie tells Wally she announces plans to get pregnant via a turkey baster injection from married sperm donor Roland, he’s understandably perturbed, on multiple fronts.

Cut to a “pregnancy party,” some serious imbibing and an accidental, severely drunken swap of Roland’s fluids for Wally’s. Soon enough, seven years have passed and Kassie returns to the Big Apple after a pre-birth move to Minnesota, with her depressed hypochondriac son Sebastian (Thomas Robinson) in tow, in whom Wally, for reasons unknown to him or anyone else, sees a lot of himself.

Through a series of sensitive, carefully calibrated moments for which the term “heart tugging” might have been invented the movie offers an affecting depiction of Wally’s gradual thawing, amid his development of a parent’s strong attachment to Sebastian. The character’s relationship with Kassie takes a back seat to that between him and their son, manifested in visits to the Bronx Zoo and a delousing adventure. It helps that Robinson is a terrific, winning actor, a sad-eyed old soul convincingly drawn to the fastidious Wally over his rather perplexed mother and Roland, a straight edged jock type who reenters their lives.

He and Bateman have the sort of karmic cinematic chemistry that defies words and the usual manufactured nonsense to arrive at a deeper, truer place. There’s the shared sense of something major and magical happening as they bond — for Wally, the thrill of a father finally getting to know his son and for Sebastian, the excitement of finding someone who understands and refuses to judge him. They’re smart, sensitive actors attuned to the value of silence and the eyes’ revealing powers, and I don’t care that Robinson’s six years old.

If their relationship drives the picture, the surrounding weirdness makes it stick. Co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck have smartly cast Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis in the requisite best friend roles. The former, opting for strange halting line deliveries and a persistent, wicked smile, and the latter, almost perfectly annoying, enliven the proceedings with a heightened zest that nicely counteracts with the stars’ down-to-earth personas. Wilson, all grins and shoulder slaps, makes a perfect go-getter type. His Roland comes across as a great guy who’s easy to hate, a challenging achievement for any actor.

Superficially, The Switch operates in the scrubbed clean world of the modern New York romantic fantasy. Sharp, bright establishing shots, scenes in Central Park and a stream of beautiful apartments/stark skyscraper views make its milieu clear. Emotionally and thematically, however, the movie finds a deeper and truer place, telling the simple story of a man growing up and falling in love with ample nuance and heart. Sadly, based on its disappointing eighth place opening weekend box office, relatively few people have seen the most conclusive proof yet that Bateman’s a special talent, with gifts far beyond droll comedy, that are waiting to be unlocked. Filmmakers and casting directors: please take note.

The Upside: Jason Bateman gives a smart, complex performance. The onscreen relationship he develops with six-year-old co-star Thomas Robinson has a surprising amount of depth to it.

The Downside: Jennifer Aniston basically plays Jennifer Aniston, as always. She needs to freshen things up.

On the Side: The movie finished eighth at the box office, the lowest of any of last weekend’s new releases. Many more people saw Vampires Suck. God Bless America.

Grade: B


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