In a market with massive amounts of competition, say the film business, there are several strategies to assure box office success. There is the one about appealing to the lowest common denominator, also known as the male aged 13-25 or so bracket, which includes action films where things go boom loudly and with relentless regularity. There is the female aged 13-25 or so, which includes star-crossed romance, perhaps with a twist of the supernatural, to which said audience will return over and over again, usually squealing with delight. And then there is the equally clever niche market strategy. THE BACK-UP PLAN falls into that category, pinning its success on the very narrow, but putatively rabid, and certainly underserved niche market of the baby-hungry female whose biological clock is down to its last few clicks. Hence Jennifer Lopez as the impossibly and perfectly groomed mother-to-be, who frets inordinately over an overdue pedicure, and Alex O’Loughlin as the hunky guy who is not the father, but desperately wants to be there for her with a life-long commitment and a wedge of goat cheese. Okay, the goat cheese is a little esoteric, but certainly no more far-fetched than the rest of this flick.
Lopez is Zoe, whose name means “life” in Greek, and who is a successful post-yuppie with a powerful yearning for a baby to complete her professional life as the owner of a socially responsible pet store. With no man in her life, she turns to a sperm-donor and, as is the wont of romantic comedies that require the meet-cute start to the plot, meets Stan (O’Loughlin), her soul-mate, as she is leaving her insemination session. To insure the cuteness of the meet, they squabble over a cab in the rain and then, for reasons that only make sense in the context of this sort of universe, share a subway ride before parting forever. It doesn’t bear pondering. It’s a plot device. As is their next and inevitable meet-cute, when Zoe is taken to a farmer’s market in Tribeca by best friend and harried mother of many, Mona (Michaela Watkins). Of course, Stan is there selling his very own handcrafted goat cheese. Of course he is smitten. Of course, so is she, but won’t admit it for the sake of appearing to be a strong independent woman who will, of course, succumb because there is another hour or so of running time to kill. This leads to an exploration of the world of cheese-based sexual innuendoes. It’s a small world, just like the New York City of this flick, where the same people keep running into each other until they hook up.
There is the further of course wherein Zoe and Stan fall in lust, which turns to love, which turns to tearful confessions about their respective baggage, and the would-be adorable nature of a pregnant women pushing her man away with all her might and being surprised when he finally walks away. That’s the entire story, with the addition of Zoe’s grandmother (Linda Lavin) as a convenient expository device for her side of things, Anthony Andrews as a playground dad performing the same function for Stan, and a single-mothers support group to grind home how very lucky Zoe is to have actually found a man who wants to raise a child not his own with a woman he has just met.
From beginning to end, this is an unpleasant, uninspired, and dull piece of work. Pregnancy tests are presented in an artfully arranged pool of doggie barf, and children of all ages are presented as over-indulged monsters who suck the life from their caregivers literally and/or metaphorically. The characters have less sense than the guppies for sale in Zoe’s shop, with no better example than Zoe wearing a delightful assortment of loose-fitting but strategically tailored schmattas before her pregnancy shows, and then attempting to squeeze into a form-fitting and restrictive sheath once the tummy starts to effulgently pooch out.
Lopez’s approach to acting out this character is to do nothing that might distract the audience from her exquisite hair, make-up, wardrobe, and lighting, even while scarfing stew with half a loaf of bread. O’Loughlin is agreeably attractive, without stealing any of Lopez’s thunder, and is non-threatening as he evinces a personality not unlike that of a medium-sized marshmallow (organic and locally produced, of course). Theirs is not a match that is full of heat, so much as it is a chance for Lopez to gaze dreamy-eyed and love-struck while O’Loughlin makes himself as unobtrusive as possible.
THE BACK-UP PLAN doesn’t even have the flair of being a phenomenally awful picture, merely a run-of-the-mill boring one. The writing is choppy, the pacing not readily noted as such, and the most genuine moments involve Zoe’s dog, the one confined to a canine wheelchair, begging for scraps from the dinner table. That clearly audible ticking isn’t a biological clock, it’s time droning on until the end of the end credits roll.