April 23, 2010

The Back-up Plan

Warning: Prolonged exposure may cause impregnation

Grade: D +

Director: Alan Poul

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Alex O’Loughlin, Michaela Watkins, Anthony Anderson, and Eric Christian Olsen

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

At the risk of adding to the inevitable panoply of puns spawned by the title of Jennifer Lopez’s latest film, I sure hope J.Lo has a “back-up plan” for her latest stab at an acting career comeback. Lopez is certainly not without talent – she’s telegenic, charismatic, and I still think she and George Clooney in the increasingly underrated Out of Sight are the sexiest onscreen couple in recent movie history.

The problem is that Lopez lacks the acting chops to carry dramas, and producers of romantic-comedies are torn over whether to cast her as sweet or sassy – she doesn’t wear the former well, while the latter plays too close to her diva persona. Filmmakers of The Back-up Plan try to have it both ways, and the result is predictable – a shoddy, crass trifle whose moral compass is beset by magnetic interference.

Lopez and Alex O’Loughlin (a poor man's Matthew Goode) play the sort of faux-folk only Hollywood could contrive. She’s Zoe, a hopelessly single former dotcom exec who cashed out to buy a Manhattan pet store. He’s Stan, who recovered from his philandering Swedish ex-wife by moving to the country to run an organic cheese farm. Zoe has also decided to become a single mother, and in the film’s opening sequence she visits her fertility doctor, Dr. Harris (Robert Klein), for the latest round of artificial insemination.

Let the tropes begin! On her way out of the sperm bank, Zoe and Stan meet-cute when they both try to commandeer the same taxi (of course they do…). A series of (not-so) coincidental encounters later, and soon the two take a literal roll in the hay inside Stan’s cheese barn. Of course, it’s only post-coitus when Zoe finally informs Stan that she’s already pregnant, with twins she later learns.

The problem with this Knocked-Up knockoff is that in the Judd Apatow laugher, Seth Rogan’s character actually impregnated Katherine Heigl’s character. Here, Stan neither sires Zoe’s children nor is even aware of her pregnancy or decision to have kids when they embark on their embryonic romance. But, why let a small detail like that derail manufactured conflict? The rest of The Back-up Plan is an endless series of vignettes revolving around deciding whether Stan’s trepidation over accidental fatherhood is just harmless jitters or a sign that he intends to shirk some mysterious, incomprehensible responsibility and (horror) breakup with Zoe.

Beyond the ethical idiocies, The Back-up Plan is just a crummy movie. In our post-Apatow world, the only thing separating this from a run-of-the-mill TV movie is the rank, ill-fitting profanity and repeated gross-out gags. In a movie that partly seeks to reveal the ugly truth of childbirth, it is fine to have scenes involving peeing on pregnancy sticks and morning sickness vomiting. But, do we really need Stan fainting after seeing a close-up of Dr. Harris’ bloody glove after he examines Zoe’s vagina, or, when Zoe and Stan witness a water birth, Zoe fainting and nose-diving into the placenta-filled kiddie pool?

Moreover, the film’s patina of tolerance conceals a latent elitism. When Zoe joins a support group for unwed mothers, director – and longtime Six Feet Under producer – Alan Poul curiously casts the single moms as an eccentric, bohemian lot who are all butch and/or overweight. Indeed, Zoe’s mere decision to date another man nearly gets her kicked out of the tribe.

The film’s fleeting bright spot is an all-too-brief walk-on by Anthony Anderson as a father of three with a sardonic, sobering view of parenthood. Otherwise, the only possible way to conjure some enjoyment is turning it into a drinking game by taking a shot of tequila every time Poul shows another lame reaction shot of Zoe’s disabled pet dog and its pimped-out wheel-cart.

The Back-up Plan is a badly written, moralizing mess that is as tedious as it is unfunny. Should I…sure, why not? The only “back-up plan” the audience will need is figuring out the quickest exit from the theater.

Neil Morris

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