Sunday, November 24, 2013


There’s something sneakily warm, humane, and even a little moving at the center of Delivery Man, a cluttered, sickly sweet, and not particularly funny comedy that’s almost impossible to recommend without piling on caveats and disclaimers. It stars Vince Vaughn as one of his usual responsibility-resistant motormouths, this time a guy who is nearly fired by his father from the family business, crushed under a debt of thousands he owes some shady characters, and all-but-dumped by his exasperated girlfriend. On top of all this, he’s tracked down by an attorney who tells him the sperm bank to which he donated over 600 times over 20 years ago mistakenly overworked his samples and now 533 young people would like him to drop his anonymity and meet them. In fact, they’re suing him to do so. What a predicament. With such a strained comic premise, the film has to work hard to back into its gooey sentimentality, but earns some unexpected charm along the way.

What I liked best about the film was the diversity of children Vaughn’s character suddenly discovers he fathered in scenes that play well with what the characters know or don't know about the situation. We find out about the kids as he does, impulsively picking them one by one out of a case file his lawyer (likably played by Parks & Recreation’s Chris Pratt) advises him not to open. If he didn’t want him to open it, why does he give him a copy? But I digress. Vaughn approaches them one at a time, acting only as a stranger to them. He discovers his secret children are a varied bunch: a struggling actor, a professional basketball player, an amiable drunk college kid, a busker, a drug addict, a historical reenactor, a special needs child, and more. These young people in their teens and twenties have only their unknown father in common. Some he’s immediately proud of. Others he feels the need to help. Still others, he’s disappointed when confronted with their life situations. But the sneakily humane and moving part is the way he’s instantly and totally struck with deep fatherly love for them, proud of them simply for existing.

Andrew Solomon’s recent extraordinary book Far from the Tree powerfully explores the concept of parents truly, deeply, fully loving children who are not what they would expect or have hoped for in a variety of difficult situations. I never would’ve guessed that an otherwise silly and misshapen trifle like Delivery Man would rub up against the same nerve as this great book, but so it does. When Vaughn tells his lawyer that he wants to be their guardian angel, it’s sweet. The concept may be wildly impractical – who could possibly be a real present father to over 500 kids, most of whom are already legally adults? – but the core sentiment rings with some degree of authenticity about finding and accepting one’s family and all the diversity of experiences that can encompass.

Would that the film devoted less time to financial thugs who show up precisely twice to threaten Vaughn to pay up. Who are they? Where do they come from? Why did they lend him money? Who knows? The movie cares not a bit about the answer, failing to characterize the threat even a token amount. Similarly, there’s an unfortunate detour involving one of Vaughn’s mystery kids who learns his father’s identity and attempts to extort some father-son bonding time. These two malnourished subplots load down the film with unnecessary clutter, distracting from the emotional journey that Vaughn would go through far more convincingly and poignantly without such contrivances.

In addition to the unfocused plotting, supporting roles are universally anemic, especially poor Cobie Smulders in the thankless girlfriend role that’s only around for the super schmaltzy but kind of effective emotional climax. Such problems come with the material, which Canadian writer-director Ken Scott is recycling from his own 2011 French-language film Starbuck. It’s too bad the process of remaking his own film didn’t allow him to clear away the tangle of distracting subplots that gathers up around the nice emotional center or write in some better jokes. The film is sweet and soft. But what makes it such a nagging disappointment is the missed opportunities. Instead of devoting time to that debt or extortion sidetracks, why not nod to the mothers of all these children, who are conspicuously missing entirely from the equation. What do they have to say about all this? In the end, it’s so focused on ending with a feel-good group hug of an ending, it’s hard not to feel at least a little cheated by how sloppily we got there.

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