Silver Screen: Delivery Man ***
A decade after he released the brutally compelling Funny Games in 1997, the dynamically dour German director Michael Haneke remade his own film in English. The nearly shot-for-shot recreation might seem superfluous— long, terrible silences and savage violence translate pretty well without subtitles— but Haneke had an intriguing reason. In interviews he’s stated that he repeated himself because he realized a kind of fundamental mistake with the original. Funny Games was intended as an indictment of salaciously violent films and the audiences who crave them. Haneke said he realized that it was largely American culture he was critiquing, yet those audiences would be the least likely to see it, so he made a version that would directly target them, target being the key word.
Canadian director Ken Scott undertakes a similar endeavor with Delivery Man, a straightforward remake of his own 2011 French-language comedy Starbuck. Scott’s reasons for revisiting familiar artistic territory are a little less compelling than Haneke’s. More people will pay to see an English language version, especially if it stars Vince Vaughn.
For a movie begotten by such blatantly commercial reasoning, however, Delivery Man is a pleasant, low-key comedy. Even had it not already existed en Francais, it wouldn’t break any new ground, but despite spending too much screentime concerned with its overstuffed central plot, the movie’s jokes spring naturally from the characters and their interactions. It’s also a nice return to form for star Vaughn, whose smarmy likability had mostly curdled into something sour and unpleasant in a string of ill-chosen starring vehicles. (If you’re keeping score, since Wedding Crashers his leading roles have come in The Internship, The Watch, The Dilemma, Couples Retreat, Four Christmases, Fred Claus, and The Breakup, a murderers row of painfully unfunny films.)
Delivery Man’s premise is a great, simple setup for a heartstring-tugging comedy. Irresponsible delivery-truck driver David Wozniak (Vaughn) used to make extra cash by selling his sperm to a fertility clinic. Twenty years later he discovers that the doctor who ran the clinic favored his samples, which were particularly potent, to such a degree that David is now the biological father of 533 children. A group of 142 of those heirs have mounted a class-action lawsuit to discover the identity of the anonymous donor, known only as Starbuck.
David enlists the shoddy legal expertise of his pal Brett (Chris Pratt), a beleaguered father and not-very-good attorney. Brett is convinced he can not only protect David’s identity but make him big money in a countersuit against the clinic, which would solve his significant money problems. But David threatens to derail the case when he begins tracking down the kids and intervening in their lives without revealing their connection.
It’s an exceptional conceit for a comedy heartwarmer, and Scott mostly honors it. Delivery Man treads the line between sweet and oversentimental, maybe even occasionally steps over it, but an abundance of sentiment isn’t the worst surplus for a movie. Vaughn adds a little sharpness with his irascibility, which is nicely toned down here, at least a little. He and Pratt make a fun pair, and How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders’s small-screen appeal as a romantic-comedy lead transitions well onto the big screen, where she plays David’s on-again off-again girlfriend pregnant with a child he might actually get to raise.
Delivery Man’s primary stumbling block is a silly, extraneous subplot concerning David’s financial woes. Through unexplained circumstances, he’s somehow racked up a $100,000 debt to a loan shark who’s threatening physical violence against him and his close-knit family, who all work together in a meatpacking business. A movie about a guy who discovers he has 533 kids has enough plot twists and characters to deal with without bringing the Mafia into the mix. It’s a tiresome, unnecessary bit of plotting that bogs down the movie except for those long stretches where it’s forgotten about entirely. It doesn’t hinder Delivery Man from being a decent movie, it just prevents it from being a better one.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.