No Sperm Left Behind: Vaughn tones down shtick, "Delivery Man" has a low laugh count

Delivery Man (2013)
103 min., rated PG-13.

At long last, yet another high-concept sperm comedy the whole family can enjoy! Writer-director Ken Scott's 2011 French-Canadian indie "Starbuck" gets the line-for-line, scene-for-scene Hollywood redo with Scott's "Delivery Man," kind of like Michael Haneke's German and U.S. versions of "Funny Games" (minus the whole slaying of a nice family at the end, of course). The premise is pure sitcom stuff, wherein hapless, flaky David Wozniak (Vince Vaughn), a delivery man for his family-owned meat market in Brooklyn, receives some shocking news. Evidently, when he donated his fertile swimmers in the '90s for three years under the name "Starbuck," an error at the fertility clinic made him the father of 533 children, 142 of whom have filed a lawsuit on the clinic to reveal the identity of their biological father. Thanks to his lawyer-with-a-lost-license buddy Brett (Chris Pratt), who can barely manage his own four kids, the nonplussed Dave gets ahold of his twentysomething-aged kids' personality profiles and begins visiting them as their anonymous "guardian angel." 

A few problems with that basic premise. Are we supposed to believe that all 142 children still live in the most expensive U.S. city? Where are their mothers? Is it really killing them inside that they don't know whose sperm helped bring them into this world? When David starts hanging out with them all (who have already come together as a brother-and-sister commune), it's unbelievable that only one of them would make the connection to this over-6-foot fortysomething's sudden appearance. In case we didn't already know David is too irresponsible at his job and in life to care for a child of his own, his brother (Bobby Moynihan), a new father himself, tells him not to procreate or reproduce. We also learn he grows pot in his apartment and owes a $80,000 debt to loan sharks who like to stick people's heads in toilets. Then, after not calling her, Dave shows up at the stoop of police-officer girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders), who tells him she's pregnant and scolds her boyfriend for not having "the skills to bring up a child." Thanks for spoon-feeding us, movie. 

Re-written for the screen by director Ken Scott and Martin Petit (who also co-wrote "Starbuck"), the film makes few changes aside from the language and setting, and those who haven't seen the French-Canadian version won't be bothered. Rather, "Delivery Man" is just confusing because it's unsure of what it wants to be. If it's a comedy, the laughs never land, and if it's a drama about family and commitment, very little reflects reality, so the emotions don't really register as anything more than blatant button-pushing. When the film isn't working on either level, it just becomes a patience-testing slog to get to the inevitable "kumbaya" climax that is mockingly saccharine in how it literalizes an undeserved group hug. 

Director Scott does employ some energetic music choices (The Strokes' "Someday" and AC/DC's "Thunderstruck"), but he shows a lack of pacing and timing for almost everything else. Admittedly, there are some scattered smiles in a montage of David checking up on his kids and doing them good deeds, like taking over at a coffee shop while a young aspiring actor goes to The Big Audition, or dropping tips for a trying-to-make-it guitar player in Central Park, or visiting an indoor pool to see his lifeguard son, or getting a manicure by his half-black daughter (which is a nice touch). A select few of the young actors have fresh, memorable faces, but even fewer of them stand out, as if the 142 kids were made up of an entire casting call without bothering to have any of Dave's (or Vaughn's) genes. Britt Robertson expresses a few honest notes as heroin addict Kristen, who tidily, magically, and simplistically quits using by keeping her job at Bloomingdale's, but her moments would be better served in an entirely different movie. Stage actor Adam Chanler-Berat also brings more layers to Tolstoy-quoting vegetarian Viggo than the script does. But, next to a few nice moments with them and one late scene with David's father (Andrzej Blumenfeld), there is an embarrassingly manipulative, borderline-offensive scene where David visits his special-needs son (Sébastien René), so our ne'er-do-well lead can automatically have an epiphany and become a hero for wheeling him around outside.

While previous Vince Vaughn comedies basically came down to one's personal threshold for his fast-talking ignoramus shtick, the actor gets in touch with his softer, more earnest side here. Before, Vaughn had an edge to him, and then after "Wedding Crashers" and "The Break-Up," he's just been content to mail it in like a smirky one-trick pony, but if this is the decided direction Vaughn is going, being affable rather than glib and obnoxious, we'll take it. A welcomely subdued Vaughn is fine in the role, but Chris Pratt is the comedic life raft here, and even his line readings don't always hit. The funny and lovely Cobie Smulders deserves more than the afterthought role of Naggy Girlfriend she's saddled with, and it's a betrayal to her Emma that she's left in the dark about David's secret for so long even after she delivers their baby. Its soft heart surprisingly trumps masturbation jokes and is ultimately in the right place, but "Delivery Man" is just flat and rarely rings true, ending up in a tepid, middle-of-the-road category. If anything, the film might force every man to have second thoughts about procreating.