DARE DANIEL – The Back-Up Plan

imagesThe Back-Up Plan (2010; Dir.: Alan Poul)

GRADE: F

By Daniel Barnes

The “and credit” is hallowed ground in the opening credits of any film, an honorable position of respect not to be bestowed lightly. Naturally, the film’s stars are always listed first in a movie’s credits, followed by the supporting actors and featured players, but it is those final acting credits – the “and credits” – that provide the last punch of pre-movie hype. Typically, the “and credit” is used to showcase the presence of venerated stars in small roles (“and Sean Connery as Professor Henry Jones”), or to spotlight a breakout performer (“and starring Robin Wright as The Princess Bride”), or even to assure franchise fans that they are still on familiar ground (“and Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky”).

imagesTherefore, the “and credits” say a lot not only about a film’s star power, but about its self-conception regarding which of its elements might actually appeal to the public. So what does it say about Alan Poul’s utterly disgusting and dehumanizing romantic comedy The Back-Up Plan that the “and credits” are bestowed upon comedian Robert Klein and 1970s sitcom star Linda Lavin? It probably says that absolutely nothing in this miserable movie appeals to audiences, which is not a surprising revelation when you consider that the first spit-take joke comes less than three minutes into the story.

Jennifer Lopez and Michael Vartan Alex O’Loughlin, who have an obnoxious lack of chemistry together, headline The Back-Up Plan as star-crossed lovers Zoe and Stan.  When the film opens, Zoe has given up the search for “Mr. Right”, and has elected to start a family alone by getting artificially inseminated.  As she leaves the gynecologist’s office, Zoe gets into a cab at the same time as O’Loughlin’s smarmy Stan, which leads to one of the least cute “meet cutes” in cinema history.

But how did this “meet cute” even happen? We see the cab pull over across a couple of lanes to pick up Zoe, who enters the back seat through the passenger side. At the exact same time, Stan enters the back seat through the driver side, but it is unclear how he even got to the door in the first place. Was Stan hailing a cab from the middle of the street?  How he could not have seen Zoe, as he claims?  How could she not have seen him?  Is he a wizard or just a shape-shifter?  These are the sort of mental Moebius strips that usually afflict emotionally disturbed prisoners in solitary confinement, which is actually an apt metaphor for the experience of being forced to watch The Back-Up Plan.

imagesOf course, the taxi pulls away as Zoe and Stan argue over who should take the car, since cab drivers are notorious for hating cash fares. It is quite possible that the driver felt as I did, and simply could not stand to be around either one of them for another second. Zoe is a childish nitwit (at one point, she refers to Stan as “a stupid head”) with some incredibly low self-esteem, and Stan is a sleazy jerk accessorized into a hipster dreamboat. He’s a goat farmer who lives in New York, and although he is a complete stranger, he follows Zoe home and later accosts her at work, behavior that would seem terrifying if Stephen Trask’s twinkly score didn’t insist otherwise.

Although it approaches the audience with the “we’ve-all-been-there” wink of a For Better or For Worse comic strip, all of the concepts of “normal human behavior” in The Back-Up Plan are poorly calibrated. On their first date, Stan refers to his ex-girlfriend as “whore-ish,” which Zoe seems to find endearing. Zoe goes to visit a support group for single mothers the day after getting inseminated for the first time, and no one bats an eye. When Stan later feels “stressed out” by Zoe’s pregnancy, he stays up all night cooking hundreds of pancakes, which is something that a paranoid schizophrenic might do. Even the laws of science are debatable in the world of The Back-Up Plan – during one of the film’s many excruciating slapstick moments, a knocked-over candle causes a pizza to spontaneously burst into a flaming inferno.

Then there is the pet store that Zoe owns and never operates. I am completely fascinated by this pet store, and could go on for another two to three thousand words just on the insanity of her business plan. It is a cozy little mom-and-pop pet store in New York City with several full-time employees and no customers. Her business acumen is so bad that when Cesar “The Dog Whisperer” Milian makes an in-store appearance to promote his book, he draws maybe ten to twelve people, and has to ask Zoe to leave when she refuses to stop talking over him. Despite all of this, Zoe lives quite lavishly, which would seem to indicate that the pet store is just the front for an international drug laundering operation.  If only the studio had made that movie instead this one, I probably would have been spared the moment where Anthony Anderson admits to having sex with a pregnancy pillow.

And there is more, so much more – Anderson plays a Bagger Vance-esque “Magical Negro” of fatherhood, and he mentors O’Loughlin in the ways of child-rearing and annoying improv.  Stan calls another pregnant woman “Orca”  at one point, which Zoe, now well into her third trimester, regards with the blank submission of an abuse victim. More than anything, this movie hates women: the day after learning she is pregnant, Zoe is already devouring hot stew straight from the pot with her fists. She attends a support group called “Single Mothers and Proud,” and the women in it are predictably portrayed as man-hating loons. The single mothers are outraged when they discover Zoe has found love (because it’s a group for single mothers, duh!), but they forgive her in time for Zoe and Stan to attend one of the group member’s New Age-y births, a sequence whose only point is that not having a man makes women crazy.

Stan initially decides to pursue his relationship with Zoe and help raise her child, but after a series of idiotic misunderstandings, she calls it off.   However, when she learns that her grandmother (played by “and Linda Lavin”) has finally decided to marry her own long-time fiancée, that changes everything for some stupid reason. Suddenly, Zoe is frantic to reunite with Stan, and although the timeline of Zoe’s pregnancy is completely confusing due to post-test screening re-edits, they reconcile just in time for her to go into labor. After a brief flash-forward, we see that Zoe has given birth to twin babies, while Stan has opened up a little goat cheese shop right next door to Zoe’s pet store.  The heartwarming message: as the family gets bigger, the international drug laundering operation has to expand in kind.

There are a lot of unappealing aspects to The Back-Up Plan, but least appealing of all are the stars.  Lopez has squandered her natural charisma, as well as the promise she displayed in early roles in movies like Out of Sight and Blood and Wine, by churning out one unchallenging pile of crap after another. O’Laughlin is best known for his role in the recent Hawaii Five-O reboot, and while I was unfamiliar with him before The Back-Up Plan, he is not likeable at all here.  When you consider that the only qualifications for his role were making stupid faces and looking good shirtless, you wonder why the producers didn’t just cast Dan Cortese instead.  At the very least, he would have made for a better “and credit” than Robert Klein and Linda Lavin.