Delivery Man
Delivery Man

I ‘ll watch Vince Vaughn in anything—he’s the most skillfully sardonic comic actor working today, and though he grew up in Lake Forest he’s more persuasive onscreen as a regular guy than any of his contemporaries. He carries Delivery Man, a strange and sometimes beguiling story of a man who discovers that his copious sperm donations two decades earlier have yielded more than 500 biological children. With The Dilemma (2011), Ron Howard’s ambitious comedy about loyalty and infidelity, and now this movie, Vaughn has begun to take on roles that stretch him more than his usual outings with Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. In fact, Vaughn is so good that you wish Cobie Smulders, who plays the hero’s pregnant girlfriend, Emma, weren’t so flat, a bargain-basement Jennifer Connelly. Her depthless performance leaves the movie without a single significant female character, which is an odd state of affairs for a movie about childbirth.

Not that it can’t work commercially: Knocked Up, one of the biggest comedy hits of 2007, told the story of an unwanted pregnancy but was dominated by Seth Rogen as the expectant father and, playing his various pals, Paul Rudd, Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, and Martin Starr. Its box office success proved that you could make a profitable date movie that focused on the guys, so long as the central character comes to embrace the notion of fatherhood and cuddles an infant to his chest at some point before the credits roll. Delivery Man takes this a step further, because as the story progresses the hero begins forming attachments with his 20-year-old children (primarily his sons), and this extended family proves even more collegial than his usual buddies. It too ends with the central character cuddling an infant to his chest, though by that time he already has more offspring than Abraham.

Delivery Man originated in Quebec as a French-language comedy called Starbuck (2011), directed by Ken Scott from a script he wrote with Martin Petit, and Scott repeated his chores on Delivery Man, essentially a scene-for-scene, line-for-line translation into vernacular English. The story works just as well transplanted to Brooklyn, where middle-aged David Wozniak (Vaughn) drives a delivery truck for his family’s meat company. An early scene shows him transferring a kiss with two fingers to a glass-framed portrait of his late mother as he arrives back at the shop, late as usual, and it soon becomes clear that he’s the family fuckup, living in a decrepit pad full of toys, records, and sports memorabilia. He’s lost $80,000 in a pyramid scheme, a loan shark is after him, and his girlfriend is so disheartened by his neglect that when she discovers that she’s pregnant, she turns him away at the door.

David decides to become a responsible father, but his plans are sidetracked when a legal representative of the reproductive clinic where he sold his sperm in the 90s arrives with bad news: for a period of two years the clinic imprudently gave his seed to every one of its clients, and now David has 533 biological children—124 of whom have banded together in a class-action suit to discover his identity. His old pal Brett (Chris Pratt), a father of four rambunctious kids and an attorney of little repute, agrees to defend David and for some reason gives him an envelope containing photos and contact information for all 124 litigants. “Do not open that envelope,” Brett orders him, so of course David does, and from sheer curiosity he begins tracking down his grown children, spying on them from a distance and then ingratiating himself without revealing his identity.

This is the point at which a dopey premise blooms into real tenderness. As David encounters his kids, he begins to feel all the pride, anxiety, resentment, joy, and wonder of a real father, and he’s drawn helplessly into making his children’s lives better. When he learns that young Josh (Jack Raynor), who works as a barista but wants to act, is missing the “audition of a lifetime,” David loans him his delivery truck and fills in for him at the coffee shop. When he finds his daughter Kristen (Britt Robertson) dying from an overdose (in a barely credible scene that you’d think Scott could have fixed the second time around), he drives her to a hospital, reluctantly accedes to her request that he sign her release papers, and watches from his truck outside her workplace the next morning to see whether she’ll show up as promised. In the story’s most melancholy turn, David’s son Ryan (Sebastien Rene, the only actor carried over from the French version) suffers from multiple sclerosis and lives in an assisted-living facility, where David becomes a periodic visitor and pushes him around the grounds in his wheelchair.

Fatherhood seems irresistible in Delivery Man mainly because it’s so sanitized: David’s children tend to be lively, eager, friendly young adults (played by a large cast of knockouts) whose worst adolescent days are behind them. There’s a funny running gag in which the earnest Viggo (Adam Chanler-Berat), who manages to pierce David’s secrecy, berates him for eating meat and subjects him to endless philosophical debates. But for the most part David is spared the years of whining, testing, and challenging that give real fathers gray hair. On top of that, he escapes the stress of having to get along with the child’s mother, because, incredibly, none of the 500-plus recipients of his sperm ever appears onscreen, even at the weekend getaway organized by the kids participating in the class-action suit. Restricted entirely to them (excepting David, who sneaks in as Viggo’s guest), this bucolic love fest plays right into David’s conception of life as a perpetual barbecue.

When the trials of raising children do creep into Delivery Man, they’re presented in the cutest terms possible, through Brett’s running war with his little daughter and three sons. In his first scene he sits outside his house with David in the middle of the night, cradling one of the kids in his lap; one by one the other three all come outside and, ignoring his repeated orders, crawl into the sandbox in their pajamas. As he and David try to have a serious discussion, his daughter walks up to him without a word and begins patting his cheeks incessantly, trying to get his attention, and she will not stop. “It’s impossible to be the father of 533 children,” David exclaims later in the movie, to which Brett replies, “It’s impossible to be the father of four children.” Apart from Vaughn, the most valuable player in Delivery Man is undoubtedly Chris Pratt, a stocky character guy (Moneyball, The Five-Year Engagement) whose excitable demeanor is put to excellent use here. He’s so entertaining in his scenes with the kids that you almost forget to wonder where their mother is.

Touching as David’s scenes with his grown children might be, the endlessly rich premise of having hundreds of kids, all roughly the same age, keeps getting crowded out of Delivery Man by plot concerns we’ve seen in a million other movies: David needs to pay off his loan or else, Emma wants him to grow up and marry her, his father is disappointed in him, etc. The class-action suit guarantees from the start that the movie will climax with a dully familiar courtroom scene to determine whether the sperm donor, known to the public only as “Starbuck,” is entitled to his privacy. Obviously the clinic is obliged to honor the confidentiality agreements David signed every time he came in to fill his little paper cup (“Starbuck”—get it?), but we have to wait it out regardless. Likewise, David’s tenuous relationship with Emma will have to be healed, because that’s the deal the producers have cut with their date-movie demographic.

What a shame that Scott didn’t really tear this idea open and focus on David and his little collective family. Things look good now, but what happens when the rest of his 533 children decide to look him up? What happens when they start asking for money, or get pissed off that he can’t attend all their college graduations the same weekend? What happens after his children start having children of their own, and David has a thousand christenings to attend? What happens when his offspring make so many demands on his time that he’s pulled in a million different directions, with never a moment for his wife and his own child, not to mention himself? Delivery Man is the sort of story that could go on and on—like the landmark Seven Up documentaries, whose creators profiled a group of British schoolchildren in 1964 and have checked in with them every seven years since then. Most movie franchises run out of gas after one or two installments, but in Delivery Man the possibilities are endless.

Of course none of that will happen unless this movie takes the world by storm, and judging from the fact that it opened in fourth place last weekend, that doesn’t seem too likely. The screening I saw, though sparsely attended, drew a fair number of couples, which suggests that the Knocked Up formula may still have some life in it. Delivery Man is definitely the week’s huggiest movie: a montage near the end shows David embracing one kid after another, and after Emma’s child is safely delivered there’s an overhead shot of dozens of them hugging David, who almost seems like the nucleus of a cell formation. Given that artificial insemination is so often portrayed as the death of fatherhood, with the American family mutating from Ozzie & Harriet to The Kids Are All Right, the phallocentric Delivery Man seems like a genuine backlash. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether I was watching a comedy or a revenge fantasy.