The Back-up Plan

Jennifer Lopez’s new romantic comedy.

The Back-Up Plan. Click image to expand.
Jennifer Lopez in The Back-up Plan

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. (If All About Steve comes on in similar circumstances, start gnawing.)

There’s something irreducibly menschy about Jennifer Lopez, if a Latina can be menschy. For all I know, Lopez may be an insufferable diva in real life, but onscreen she comes across as earthy, warm, and likeable. She’s never lived up to the acting promise she showed in Out of Sight, which may turn out to be both her and Steven Soderbergh’s finest hour, but Lopez has a grounded, self-confident, almost tomboyish quality that many current rom-com heroines lack. Unlike Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Garner, Kate Hudson, et al., she doesn’t come across as desperate to be adored. (Sandra Bullock shares this grounded quality, which may explain why her appeal has survived so many terrible movies.)

Lopez’ inherent charm comes in handy in lending some personality to the otherwise anodyne Zoe, a New Yorker in her late 30s who’s just chosen to become a single mother via artificial insemination. We first meet Zoe splayed in stirrups while a gynecologist (played, inexplicably, by the ‘70s standup comedian Robert Klein) inseminates her with donated sperm. On her way out of the clinic, Zoe hails a taxi at the exact same time as a handsome young man named Stan (Alex O’Loughlin), and they fight over who has the right to use the cab. (If this ever happens to you, just marry the guy immediately and save us all some headaches.)

Both Stan and Zoe have romantic-comedy-ready jobs: He’s an organic goat farmer who runs a cheese stand at the farmers market; she’s in charge of a Manhattan pet store. (The animal theme continues with Zoe’s paraplegic Boston terrier, who scoots around on a little cart and gets more cutaway reaction shots than Barbara Walters during an interview.) After their initial meet-cute in the cab, Stan and Zoe quickly fall in love, but on the night of their first date, she learns that the insemination worked—she’s pregnant with a stranger’s child. After the shock wears off, Stan is game, but when a sonogram reveals she’s carrying twins he starts to freak out again. As Stan, the Australian O’Loughlin doesn’t melt the screen with his charisma, but he’s not a Ken doll, either—in the right vehicle, he could be a funny hunk in the Ryan Reynolds mode.

All this makes for some pretty low-stakes drama. But I will admit that I liked the fact that the only obstacles this movie throws in the couple’s path to happiness spring from their own neuroses. Rather than coming up with elaborate plot contrivances to keep Zoe and Stan apart, the scriptwriter, Kate Angelo (Will & Grace), shows how small things—like Stan’s infelicitous word choice when he tells an ex-girlfriend that the babies-to-be “aren’t mine”—can blow up into dealbreakers. Angelo’s not a master of witty repartee, and neither Zoe nor Stan seems like the sharpest knife in the drawer, but we believe they care about each other.

This PG-13 movie attempts a few ventures into R-rated territory at its own peril. A scene in which a woman from Zoe’s single-mothers’ group forces the couple to attend her ultra-crunchy home birth is genuinely terrifying—like Zoe and Stan, the audience can only stare in horror at the gruesome spectacle—but completely unfunny. The closest we get to nudity is a quick shot of Zoe examining her rear end in a mirror—I believe it’s bare, but she may have been wearing a thong—while moaning about the (demonstrably untrue) fact that pregnancy has ruined her body. Of course, the real-life Jennifer Lopez has one of the best-known asses in show business and has also, like her character, given birth to twins. This moment could be read two ways: Lopez either is making a self-deprecating joke about her celebrated tush or is proving to her fans that, protestations aside, it’s still looking good.

The Back-Up Plan is the second film from CBS Films, the new movie-making arm of the television behemoth. Their first release, Extraordinary Measures, had a similar feeling to this one: comfortable and formulaic, movie-of-the-weekish, but not without its own unambitious charm. Even the supporting cast comes from the ranks of TV sitcom royalty, with Alice’s Linda Lavin as Zoe’s grandmother and Happy Days’ Tom Bosley as the grandmother’s fiancé. It now seems clear that CBS Films’ releases will hark back to the heyday of broadcast television: sweet-natured, retrograde entertainments that demand of their audience only that it not demand too much of them.

Slate V: The Critics on The Back-up Plan, The Losers, and Best Worst Movie