Jason Bateman and Jennifer Aniston in The SwitchTHE SWITCH

Since it's a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston that actually doesn't suck, it's temping to overrate The Switch, which opens with Aniston's Kassie preparing to be artificially inseminated, and BFF Wally (Jason Bateman) - who secretly loves her - swapping her sperm donor's donation for one of his own.

Yes, the set-up does boast a pretty heavy "E-e-e-ew-w-w!" factor. But that's nothing compared to the movie's "meh" factor; you get no points for correctly predicting that Kassie's child (Thomas Robinson) will bond with Wally, and a romantic rival (Patrick Wilson) will threaten everyone's happiness, and Wally will get interrupted every time he tries to tell Kassie the truth about what happened, and there'll be long walks in the rain while sad-bastard acoustic numbers play on the soundtrack... . The movie is pure formula. But it's a pleasure to report that this time, the formula works, oftentimes far better than you'd have any right to expect.

Thanks to Jeff Goldblum and Juliette Lewis, the wisecracking-best-friend roles are played with more relish than usual, and Wilson is a wonderfully smarmy doofus in the Bill Pullman/Greg Kinnear mold. Directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (of the great Will Ferrell comedy Blades of Glory) provide plenty of lovely, funny throwaway touches - I especially liked Bateman and Robinson both reflexively covering their ears when a motorcycle passed - and young Robinson's tense, lonely, morose little hypochondriac is a true original, a wide-eyed cutie who's never just a wide-eyed cutie. Best of all, Aniston and Bateman play opposite one another with a relaxed ease and wit that make their every scene together a delight. It may be nothing more than an extended, big-screen sit-com, but at its alternately-snarky-and-sincere best, The Switch plays like a comfortable hybrid of Friends and Arrested Development, and that's not a bad sit-com at all.


Julia Roberts in Eat Pray LoveEAT PRAY LOVE

Based on Elizabeth Gilbert's much-loved best-seller, one unread by me, Julia Roberts' latest is titled Eat Pray Love. Or, as I prefer to call it, Watch Smile Leave - and I don't mean that insultingly. I should admit, however, that I'm not the ideal audience for this lightly melancholic drama about a New Yorker who escapes her life of moneyed, married drudgery by taking a year to visit Italy (where she eats), India (where she prays), and Bali (where, with Javier Bardem, she loves). Idiot that I am, I thought Roberts' character should be happy to be living in Manhattan with a well-paying freelance-writing job, fantastic friends (played by the seriously fantastic Viola Davis and Mike O'Malley), and the devoted affections of the charming Billy Crudup and, later, the charming James Franco. So I didn't quite get Roberts' quest from the outset, and once she arrived at her vacation spots across the Atlantic, I didn't quite get why every character, tourist site, and line of dialogue was such a cliché; this too-perfectly-lit, too-neatly-composed movie appears to be based less on Gilbert's novel than on a trio of glossy travel brochures.

Then again, I'm guessing that's exactly why many will people love it, and I can't argue that the movie - dramatically wanting though it is - doesn't offer a host of good things. Chief among them, it should go without saying, is the effervescent, serene Roberts, who doesn't even need the backlit halo provided by cinematographer Robert Richardson; she's plenty radiant all on her own, thank you. But Richardson and director Ryan Murphy make everything here, from the vistas to the entrées, look enticingly yummy - for the Italian dining scenes alone, it's advisable to see the movie on a full stomach - and at one point, Richard Jenkins delivers a shattering, three-minute monologue that turns him, Roberts, and you into weepy messes. (That this bit, performed in one take, comes out of absolute nowhere doesn't lessen its impact in the least.) As with most extended vacations, by the time we got to Bali, I was pretty much ready to go home - this despite Bardem's considerable charisma - but Eat Pray Love is, in the end, a thoroughly ingratiating experience. Is it wrong of me, though, to still wish we had spent more early time in New York, especially with Viola Davis, whose character has recently given birth, delivering such hysterical lines as "I'm fat, I'm exhausted, I can't keep two thoughts in my head - I feel like Liza Minnelli"?

Emma Thompson in Nanny McPhee Returns


Since I was annoyed beyond belief by the aggressive slapstick antics and forced whimsy of the 2005 kiddie flick Nanny McPhee, I was all set to blow off its sequel, Nanny McPhee Returns. I just figured that one pre-teen adventure featuring Emma Thompson's scowling, snaggletoothed, unibrowed governess per lifetime was enough, and besides, I saw the movie's cast list, and really had no interest in watching Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, and Ralph Fiennes debase themselves in this sort of bombastic family entertainment. But for reasons too boring to get into, I wound up at a screening anyway, and am happy to say that director Susanna White's sequel is a vast improvement over its predecessor. Yes, the slapstick sequences in this World War II-era comedy are still painful to endure - though slightly less painful than James Newton Howard's hyperactive score - and the film is overly reliant on the sight and mentions of poo to get the young 'uns giggling. (Seriously, there's a lot of poo in this movie. Your kids are gonna love it.) But the actors' broad readings are, this time, enjoyably broad, and for all of the manic energy on display, Nanny McPhee Returns offers a number of scenes of underplayed, blessed quiet. There are beautiful little passages involving Gyllenhaal (with a spot-on British accent) reminiscing about her wedding, and Fiennes' curt military officer attempting an armistice with his young son, that surprise you with their poignance and depth of feeling. And all throughout the film, the five principal child actors - particularly The Boy in the Striped Pajamas' naturalistic Asa Butterfield - are really quite marvelous, truthful and touching (and frequently hilarious) in unanticipated ways. Much of Nanny McPhee's "magic," like the movie's CGI elephant and gaseous blackbird, feels distractingly phony; the magic provided by these gifted youths is the genuine article.

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