The nicest thing critics said about Jennifer Lopez's The Back-Up Plan: It isn't as bad as other recent rom-coms. The meanest: "About as much fun as 36 hours of labor, only you don't get to go home with a baby."
In the film, which opens today, Lopez plays Zoe, a Manhattan pet shop owner in her mid-30s who decides to become a mother. As she is a gorgeous, lovable, and successful woman, she is of course single, so she decides to be artificially inseminated. Wouldn't you know it, minutes after walking out of the fertility clinic, she meets an impossibly perfect man named Stan (Alex O'Loughlin). He makes organic goat cheese that he sells in the city, which gives him the opportunity to drive a tractor shirtless and discuss sustainable agriculture with Zoe. (Yet there's no scene involving J.Lo getting into wacky hijinks with a goat — missed opportunity!) Stan spends the rest of the movie sorting through his feelings about dating a woman who is with (somebody else's) child, and Zoe gets to experience just about every movie pregnancy cliche. A wise Latina grandmother and an adorable disabled dog are also involved.
Critcs say The Back-Up Plan is better than most of the romantic comedies that have come out in the past two years, but only because, "it's not reprehensible, misogynistic, or cynical, and the lead couple isn't made up of a shrill female narcissist and a proudly slovenly male lug." For the most part, reviewers refrained from mocking J.Lo, saying she deserves better than Zoe and other bland characters of her ilk. It's impossible to know whether the diva persona she has in the tabloids is real or not, but she comes across as warm and likable onscreen. There is some evidence J.Lo's more easy going in real life; She agreed to film scenes in which she, "pries a used pregnancy test out of a dog's mouth, picks pieces of fried chicken out of her hair and has an epiphany in a dumpster." On the other hand, maybe the movie would have benefited if she had said no to a few of the more humiliating scenes pregnant women are routinely subjected to in film.
Below, the reviews:
For a moment or two in the culture, becoming a single mother seemed a hip thing to do, especially if you were a celebrity. But the current economic climate only highlights the challenges for women who decide to have kids on their own. The Back-up Plan is a romantic comedy caught between those two visions of single motherhood. Since Zoe is played by J. Lo, she's radiant and silky, beaming with personal power. It's no wonder that the moment she meets Stan, she's thrilled and freaked at the same time: If she really falls for him, what on earth is she going to do with all that regal self-possession? Even as the movie is satirizing Stan's anxieties about fatherhood (the responsibility! the preschool tuition!), it seems to tiptoe around the real issue - that Zoe getting pregnant on her own was not a good idea.
Never let it be said that Jennifer Lopez doesn't give her all. The singer, dancer, actress and perfume magnate has always pursued stardom with shameless abandon, and one of the pleasures of her new movie is watching J-Lo abase herself in the service of her art. In The Back-Up Plan, a not-as-bad-as-you-think-it-is romantic comedy directed by Alan Poul, Lopez pries a used pregnancy test out of a dog's mouth, picks pieces of fried chicken out of her hair and has an epiphany in a dumpster. Most unthinkably by Hollywood's standards, she endures the suggestion that she might be nearing menopause. She isn't, of course! (If she were, she wouldn't be starring in a romantic comedy! She would be playing someone's wacky grandma.)
Jennifer Lopez carries this thin concept about as far and as well as she can, with Alex O'Loughlin in his first leading-man outing managing not to get lost in the shuffle of birth preparations and doctor appointments. Back-Up Plan will have to generate its boxoffice primarily from women, though: The male characters definitely play second fiddle.
The Back-up Plan, directed by Alan Poul, is a romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez. So it can't be interesting at all. It contains enough metaphors for both its opinion of us and its own quality that a reviewer is barely necessary. The animated opening credits feature a man and woman whose wine glasses, upon clinking together, turn into baby bottles that each proceeds to suck. Lopez's crippled dog vomits up the results of her pregnancy test. And her perfect - perfectly bland - mate, Stan (Alex O'Loughlin), makes cheese for a living. Meanwhile, the less said the better regarding a scene that requires Lopez to root around in a dumpster for a pillow.
What's so disappointing about movies like The Back-up Plan - which is to say every romantic comedy that's opened in the last two years - is that they're risk averse. The fantasy aspects of this one skew much closer to so-called chick lit, where expensive shoes never touch the earth. No one says anything true or offensive or funny. Real life is always horrific. Here the camera manages to turn a scene of home birth into a version of the Rosemary's Baby finale. Come to think of it, Rosemary's Baby Daddy would have been a better title. But The Back-up Plan is a title apt for a dancer who acts and sings but excels at neither. Lopez smiles, whines, and blinks her way through this movie. She seems more relaxed than she ever has. And yet it seems like she's hiding in romantic comedies, lest we discover that she doesn't have a Monster's Ball or even a Blind Side in her. What if Lopez actually has no stops to pull out?
The Back-Up Plan begins like a typical frilly, superficial Lopez vehicle. She's got a cute job, a cute wardrobe, cute employees, and a cute disabled dog, plus she meets cute with a cute guy when they hop into the same cab. At a certain point, however, The Back-Up Plan stops even trying to be funny, and wrestles with the challenges facing a couple that skipped straight from the honeymoon stage of their relationship to the raising-children-together stage without hitting many stops between. Yet the film's admirable attempt to move into deeper waters and explore the stresses and joys of a unique instant family proves an awkward fit with cutesy comic touches like wacky dog-reaction shots, spit-takes, and multiple instances of comic fainting. The Back-Up Plan is a film divided against itself. It's really two movies, one silly and one serious. Too bad neither is particularly compelling.
It's hard to pinpoint when the American romantic comedy went into therapy, though you have to assume it was not long after filmmakers started hitting the couch, or at least cruising the self-help bookshelves. Once upon a studio time, romantic comedies involved a man and a woman engaged in delicate (or crude) power negotiations. The shrew had to be tamed and the boy had to grow up so he could handle her, or some variation on that idea. That template is still in use, though the banter that accompanied those negotiations has given way to speeches about feelings. Freud might have hit Hollywood decades earlier, but Woody Allen and the generations of funnymen and women he inspired, have a lot to answer for. Someone involved in the making of The Back-Up Plan, a not very good and yet painless waste of time, has certainly thought through some life and love questions.
It's also about how good Ms. Lopez looks after a few years off from the movies, during which she had twins and then - to judge from the many shots of her taut stomach, firm thighs and even a peek-a-boo look at her derrière - got back into shape. If you think that's an overstatement, consider that an entire scene involves a pregnant Zoe waxing rueful about her glorious posterior, as she brandishes a photo for evidence.
Some movies are no better than second-rate sitcoms. Other movies are no better than third-rate sitcoms. The Back-up Plan doesn't deserve comparison with sitcoms. It plays like an unendurable TV commercial about beautiful people with great lifestyles and not a thought in their empty little heads. So timid is this film that when it finally arrives at its inevitable childbirth scene, it bails out after two "pushes"! Jennifer Lopez has never looked better. That's about all she does here, is look better. She is talented and deserves more than this bird-brained plot about characters who have no relationship to life as it is lived by, you know, actual people. The movie deals with artificial insemination, romance, sex and organic goat cheese, which are promising areas for investigation, but it's so watered-down, it approaches homeopathy.
It might seem that The Back-Up Plan offers a perfect opportunity to play with the name; after all, as it applies to a multiplex trip, a "back-up plan" refers to what movie-goers see when their first choice is sold-out. Unfortunately, such as assessment would be overly optimistic in this case, since this movie is less a back-up plan than it is a last resort. Or, to put it another way, this is the film to watch when pretty much everything else has been sold out and the only remaining choices are The Back-Up Plan and the latest Rob Schneider opus.
The story resorts frequently to bathroom humor and birth-related gross-out gags, courtesy of a support group of stock weird characters. A mother nurses a child old enough to speak in full sentences. A tattooed single mom delivers a baby in a wading pool, emitting barnyard sounds. We see a lot of the physique that Lopez has always displayed proudly. And she does project some charm and is more adept at physical comedy than in previous movies. O'Loughlin is primarily a foil used to amplify Lopez's adorability quotient. But when it comes to comedies about pregnancy, Knocked Up and Baby Mama delivered more. This sitcom style exercise in planned parenthood is blandly predictable. If it were a cheese, it would be Velveeta.
I think I may be suffering from romantic-comedy Stockholm syndrome. After being repeatedly brutalized by the cynical, soul-deadening rom-coms of recent years (The Ugly Truth, The Proposal, New In Town), perhaps I've begun to identify with my captors and am now grateful for the smallest scrap they throw me. Formulaic plot? Bland characters? Sappy ending? Fine. Just don't make me watch Katherine Heigl have a remote-controlled orgasm in a restaurant. The Back-up Plan (CBS Films), with Jennifer Lopez as a would-be single mother surprised by love, is by any reasonable standard a bad movie: predictably scripted, sentimental, with laughs that rarely rise above a gentle sitcom chuckle. But at least it's not reprehensible, misogynistic, or cynical, and the lead couple isn't made up of a shrill female narcissist and a proudly slovenly male lug. I wouldn't go so far as to recommend this movie, but if you were tied down and forced to watch it, you wouldn't necessarily have to chew off your own leg to get away.
Whatever points there are to be earned for being contemporary and PC, some should be deducted for predictability. Just because Back-Up is about baby bumps, baby daddies, baby mamas and baby making in general doesn't mean every pregnancy cliché in the book should be used. Expected or not, these are the big, broad comedy moments — gross birthing scene, out-of-control appetite, wardrobe malfunctions — that should produce spasms of laughter. Instead they elicit groans. So when Zoe is covered by the stew she was trying to "sneak" it's really more of a reminder that good slapstick is actually an art — unfortunately not one practiced here — and bad slapstick is just tedious.
Speaking of weird and uncomfortable, at about the two-thirds mark in their predictable on-again, off-again romance, Zoe tells Stan: "I miss my old ass. It was like my new ass, but way hotter." ... Since you bring it up, Zoe, let's talk about the old ass and the new one. There's no nice or polite or even entirely acceptable way to say this, but Lopez looks kind of strange in this movie. She's been gym-toned and bronzed and highlighted and frosted and layered and processed and accessorized and hidden in drapey dresses and buried under a somewhat doggy Farrah Fawcett 'do. You can see J.Lo in there, or someone who looks like her, from time to time, but she can't come out and play. In close-up, Lopez's enormous false eyelashes cast their own shadows on the set; they threaten to reach out and entwine you, like those plant-tendril 3-D thingies in Avatar. She is indeed less curvaceous than she once was, and she has a sort of mysterious, hardened sheen, like a cupcake left too long in the Easy-Bake Oven.
The Back-up Plan is about as much fun as 36 hours of labor, only you don't get to go home with a baby at the end. Instead, you leave with a throbbing headache and a lot of questions about why anybody still thinks Jennifer Lopez can anchor a movie. After all, Out of Sight was a long time ago.
With no help from the idiotic script, O'Loughlin actually manages to emerge from this mess unscathed. Give the guy another shot at a series, and he'll be fine (especially if he's allowed to take his shirt off). But Lopez's performance is shallow and sitcom-ish, full of winky tics and cutesy giggles. She has a few funny moments of horror while witnessing the living-room birth, but the laughs in The Back-up Plan are as rare as a good romantic comedy. If only some screenwriter could give birth to such a thing.