Sympathy is the Devil

For some reason, someone must have decided that I’m the primo demographic for the new Jennifer Aniston/Jason Bateman movie, THE SWITCH because I’ve now seen the trailer thirty times.   I will never see this movie but the trailer tells enough of the story for me to get angry about one particular aspect about Hollywood films in general: that the characters need to be “sympathetic”.

Every script writer or filmmaker has had to answer to this esoteric and meaningless question: Is the character sympathetic to the audience?

So let’s look at the trailer for THE SWITCH and watch how a movie is so terrified of its own premise that it breaks its back trying to keep the main character sympathetic.

The story is something like this: Jennifer Aniston needs a sperm donor, so she gets it from “the perfect guy”.  Jason Bateman is in love with her, but they’ve been friends forever, and because of Bateman’s character flaws, or whatever, it just wasn’t happening.  So one day, Jason Bateman switches his sperm for the sperm of the perfect guy.  And then the rest of the story happens, but that’s not important for this discussion.

The writers cooked up this premise and as far as high concept ideas go, this one isn’t so bad.  There’s a lot of possibility there.  But they ran into a problem: switching someone’s sperm before it gets put in the turkey baster and shot on its way to conception is a really awful thing to do.  It’s almost definitely illegal.  What kind of a scumbag would do something like that?

Instead of answering that last question, which to me would make a far more interesting film, the writers cooked up a host of unlikely and improbable ways to get that sperm switched.   There’s a big conception party where the sperm is celebrated.  Ever hear of one of those?  No, because no one would do that.  But the real reason they have this party is so Jason Bateman can get seriously drunk.

He gets so drunk that when he goes to the bathroom and finds the perfect guy’s sperm, he picks up the cup and plays with it.  He does that, not because that what a drunk person would do.  He does that so that he can drop it by accident.  You see, it wasn’t enough just to get him drunk.  He has to be in a situation where he feels, in his drunken state, that he has to put his sperm in a cup and put that cup in it’s place.  That’s what he does.  He is so drunk, in fact, that he’s not even sure he did it the next day.  And then the rest of the movie happens.

Let’s ignore, for a second, that being shitfaced is not really an excuse for doing something unsympathetic.  I can’t imagine that a drunk driver could use that excuse in court, or even in the court of public opinion.  The reason that the writers went to all this trouble was to create a situation where Jason Bateman’s subconscious would do the dirty work for him.  In other words, he gets to do this horrible, life-altering sperm switch, and take very little moral responsibility for it.

Now, I’m sure the rest of the movie addresses this, and I would bet that him taking responsibility would probably involve him becoming the kid’s actual father.  But my point is that it was all unnecessary pretzel twisting because, if you imagine the alternative, you get a far more interesting character and a more interesting film.

The alternative would have been, simply, that Jason Bateman switched the sperm on purpose. He would have made a conscious decision and actually had to overcome obstacles to achieve his desired purpose.  Then he would have had to deal with the moral consequences.  I’m not sure he would be a more or less sympathetic character, but I am sure he would be a more interesting character.  He would have been a character we liked to watch, rather than a character that we liked and had to watch.  It might have been a little more plausible too.

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