The Back-Up Plan

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  The Back-Up Plan
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Zoe (Jennifer Lopez) is thirty years old and wants to have a baby. The problem is she has never met Mr. Right. So, with no prospect of that changing anytime soon and her baby-bearing clock ticking away, she opts for artificial insemination from an unknown donor. On the very day of the procedure, though, the elusive Mr. R will enter her life and things get complicated with “The Back-Up Plan.”

I have been there and seen this lightweight piece of showcase fluff many times before and I did not think it could be worse than, say, any other J Lo film. “The Back-Up Plan” is not the worst Jennifer Lopez vehicle (In “An Unfinished Life” and “The Cell” – both good films – she is a member of the cast, not the star, so they do not count). However, it is first and foremost a chick flick so do not expect much sympathy from me on this movie

Basically, this is the story of a woman concerned that she will soon be too old to have a baby but there is no one in her life to help her out. Go to Plan B. Instead of being concerned with such elusive things as love and marriage, she is going to cut to the chase and start a family on her own. This is when the girl-finds-boy-girl-loses-boy (several times) cliché begins and does not let up. Thank you, filmmakers, for, at least, using veteran thesps – Robert Klein as her doctor, her nana (Linda Lavin) and her fiancé of 22 years (Tom Bosley) – making the background characters more interesting than the stars. Michaela Watkins, as Zoë’s sister, steals the show with her sage advices, delivered with a caustic edge to the humor. The weakest link, though, is Alex O’Laughlin as the romantic interest, Stan. The actor has zero skill as an actor, here, and walks through his role in bewilderment.

First time feature helmer Alan Poul does a pedestrian job in bringing the equally pedestrian script by Kate Angelo, which borrows liberally from other examples of the rom-com flicks, and creates a true unoriginal. I have fed on this under nourishing trough so many times before that, after the film ended; I commented to another critic “I feel like my brain fell out."

Female audiences will eat this up with a spoon, if the femme reaction at the screening is any indication – and I think “The Back-Up Plan” will draw droves of the target demographic. For me, I started checking the time 10 minutes into the movie and, again, about every five minutes thereafter. It did not help make the time go by any faster.  I give it a D.

With her clock ticking away and no Mr. Right in sight, Zoe (Jennifer Lopez), who switched from a high profile Internet career to being pet shop owner takes an equally radical approach to family when she decides to become a single mother in "The Back-Up Plan."

OK, it's time to give the romantic comedy genre a serious vacation now.  Even back in 1944, when such things were controversial, Preston Sturges made an unwed mother of multiple babies finding love funny in "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek."  "The Back-Up Plan" has some humorous moments, largely due to supporting cast members Michaela Watkins, Anthony Anderson and Maribeth Monroe, but costar Alex O'Loughlin ("Whiteout") is a far lesser actor than Lopez and too many tasteless gags and open loops bring down the film.

There's also Robert Klein, who has a funny bedside manner as Zoe's gynecologist Dr. Harris.  He's the first person we meet as Zoe regrets not having freshened her pedicure for her insemination procedure. Writer Kate Angelo (TV's "Becker," "Will & Grace") opens the film with a lazy device that director Alan Poul (TV's "Swingtown") does little to enliven - the camera peers down at Zoe as she lies on Harris' tabling, reflecting on how she came to be here.  Five minutes later, with a spring in her step she hails a cab and jumps in at the same time Stan (O'Loughlin) does.

A day or two later, Zoe's with her friend Mona (SNL's Michaela Watkins, TV's "The New Adventures of Old Christine") trying to find the ugliest muffins to pass off at her own at a school bake sale when Zoe spots Stan again.  He's selling cheese from the family's goat farm and thinks he's been followed.  Zoe's annoyed at his inference, but agrees to a date.  That's held in one of those 'only in the movies' Manhattan community garden spaces complete with fairy lights and romantic landscaping but descends into food fight slapstick.  That leads to a request to try again, but by the time Zoe's driving out to the farm, she's wondering how to tell Stan that she's pregnant.

And so there's the back and forth of Stan coming to terms with having a child that's not his and that he's not ready for.  The couple are on again, off again until Zoe sees the light when she goes into childbirth, natch.  But for every amusing bit - Zoe's support group birthing that they both attend, Stan's consultations with a dad in the playground (Anthony Anderson, "Hustle & Flow," "Transformers") - there are the 'why did they go theres' like Zoe's consumption of stew in a stranger's kitchen with no utensils or Stan up in the middle of the night fighting anxiety by making something like 300 pancakes.  There are also characters and situations that are set up only to be ignored.  Zoe asks her employee Clive (Eric Christian Olsen, "Sunshine Cleaning") if he'll be a sperm donor and he freaks.  There is maybe one subsequent scene with them both in her pet shop, then one would never know how she made her living.  (Zoe's dog Nuts, a Boston Terrier whose back legs must be held in a cart, was her inspiration and the dog is cute and used for every possible reaction shot and visual gag the filmmakers can stuff in.) Stan tells Zoe about how he had to move back in with his parents on their farm and although she spends a weekend there, they are never seen nor mentioned again.

Lopez has a warm screen presence and manages to maintain that even while tottering on too high heels or eating in bed with chicken in her hair.  O'Loughlin, however, signals his acting at every turn and he's a distraction.  The film would have been raised up a level had someone of the calibre of, say, "Leap Year's" Matthew Goode been cast (he couldn't save that film, but he may have helped this one).  Michaela Watkins is strong giving a very atypical portrait of a mom ('I hate them!' she says of her marauding toddlers) and best friend.  Anthony Anderson has a great bit describing parenthood as something that is sheer hell most of the time, made worthwhile by the occasional miracles.  Maribeth Monroe gets a physical comedy workout giving birth in a wading tub - stick around for the closing credit out takes where she's even crazier. The film also stars Linda Lavin of TV's "Alice" as Zoe's Nana and "Happy Days's" Tom Bosley as the man Nana's been engaged to for 22 years.

On the whole, Jennifer Lopez has had some semi-successful romantic comedies ("Maid in Manhattan," "Monster-in-Law") given today's low standards, but going with a first time feature writer, director and leading man stretches her appeal too far.

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