Movie Review – The Back-Up Plan
Title: The Back-Up Plan
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Alex O’Loughlin, Anthony Anderson and Michael Watkins.
Reviewed by: S.I.
It’s hard to figure out if The Back-Up Plan is respectable because so many romantic comedies are terrible in comparison, or because it holds up on its own. It’s certainly better than other romantic comedies Jennifer Lopez has starred in. Lopez is a tip-off to a film’s quality (or usual lack of quality), and audiences have, over the years put with The Wedding Planner, Monster-In-Law, and Maid in Manhattan, so putting up with something that is noticeably better shouldn’t be difficult. Lopez is the lone movie veteran in the movie’s main cast and crew. Director Alan Poul has made his name by directing episodes of must-see TV shows like Six Feet Under, Rome, and Big Love. Writer Kate Angelo wrote episodes of Will and Grace and The Bernie Mac Show, while lead actor Alex O’Loughlin starred in shows like The Shield and Moonlight. Despite being clichéd, The Back-Up Plan is satisfactory mostly because of its alluring characters and surprisingly good performances.
Zoe (Jennifer Lopez) is a single New Yorker who longs for a child, even though the right guy hasn’t come along yet. Against her friends’ advice she decides to get artificially inseminated. Life, inevitably, plays a twisted joke on Zoe and almost immediately after the procedure she meets Stan (Alex O’Loughlin) in a taxi. Of course, they’re polar opposites. She lives in the city, he lives upstate. She wants children, he has never even thought about it. She owns a pet store, he makes goat cheese (nobody is ever a corporate drone in these comedies). Ignoring her better judgement she starts dating him. In the meantime she joins a single parent support group and discovers that she’s pregnant. When she reveals this to Stan, neither is sure if he will choose to stick around or leave.
Most of The Back-Up Plan’s charm comes from the characters. Jennifer Lopez brings her usual sass and focused determined, but most of the neediness of some of her past characters is toned down. The role isn’t a stretch for her by any means, but Zoe is less harsh than some of Lopez’s previous heroines. What was once shrill is now more playful – almost as if her slightly manic heroines have been written down into actual human beings. Zoe isn’t written as a character giving up who she is for a boyfriend or husband. A lot of female leads in romantic comedies have to stop being so career-oriented to land a man. Zoe, on the other hand, is self-made woman and doesn’t expect to give that up. She goes after what she wants – man or no man. Artificial insemination isn’t a popular choice for a single person to make, but she does it anyway.
The Back-Up Plan’s real stand-out is Australian actor Alex O’Loughlin. Aside from the obvious ease with which he handles Stan’s required American accent, O’Loughlin does more with the role than the movie requires. He could have been perfect, but there are moments when Stan is hesitant about Zoe’s pregnancy, and O’Loughlin’s performance has remarkably, some depth. You can feel Stan’s apprehension, his uncertainty about doing the right thing – he’s not even sure what the right thing is. What might have been written as momentary indecisiveness, O’Loughlin actually plays for what it is – a monumental choice – one nearly as huge as the choice Zoe has made.
The chemistry between Lopez and O’Loughlin is natural, but there’s never anything other than their fights and makeups and the comedy is inconsistent. Some of it is general comedy about pregnancy and looming motherhood. The funniest moments are usually the most painful and awkward ones. Poor Zoe is trying to get herself – pregnant belly and all – into a car, for example. Or her nauseous mood swings, which are bewildering than funny. Most of the comedy though, has at its heart characters forced into uncomfortable situations. The worst of the humour lies with the women in Zoe’s single parent support group. Each basket case is an even bigger freak than the last, which Zoe learns almost instantly when one woman tells her about giving birth right in the chair Zoe sits in. All this goes even more awry when one member forces them all – Zoe and Stan included – to witness her natural home water birth. It is a totally horrifying look at birth – some will find it funny, and others won’t. The movie also gives a grim reflection of the parents who grumble about parenthood. If it isn’t Zoe’s best friend and mother-of-three, Mona (Michaela Watkins) drunkenly grumbling about her kids, it’s a dad (Anthony Anderson) Stan talks to, who describes fatherhood as being most awful, momentarily amazing, and then awful again.
The good news about The Back-Up Plan is that the movie isn’t as terrible as its marketing suggests. It is actually one of Jennifer Lopez’s better films. The problem with actors who churn out the same old formula is that when that formula is slightly above-average, it’s hard to get the masses to care anymore.