By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
7:40 PM EST, November 21, 2013
Vince Vaughn and his new movie, "Delivery Man," have me rethinking my vow to avoid using the description "feel-good" before the word "movie" at all costs.
This is Vaughn at his most vulnerable. As much as the wisecracking actor at a different point in his career might have bristled at the description, "Delivery Man," a heart-tugging new comedy about fatherhood and family, is warm as well as wry.
Yes, this is a slight film. But there's a very likable ensemble around Vaughn, led by "Parks and Recreation's" Chris Pratt as his best friend, Brett, along with wonderful Polish actor Andrzej Blumenfeld as his father, Mikolaj. And Vaughn's more emotional side, put to such fine, angry use in "The Break-Up" opposite Jennifer Aniston in 2006, is much more in play.
So let's just say, whatever your mood going in, you will likely feel a good deal better coming out.
The movie turns on the identity confusion spawned by new-age reproductive technology. In this case, 142 of the 533 kids sired by a single anonymous sperm donor want to find out who their daddy is. Years ago, the guy gave extensively — and effectively — under the name "Starbuck." His real name is David Wozniak (Vaughn).
An endearing underachiever who drives the delivery van for his family's Brooklyn butchering business, David is cut from the same cloth as many of Vaughn's characters. After 1996's "Swingers," his breakout, the actor became one of Hollywood's go-to guys for edgy loser-types made lovable by dead-pan comic riffs — a Vaughn specialty. "Old School" in 2003 and the "Wedding Crashers" smash in 2005 were high points, followed by a growing number of lows.
At first glance, David seems like all the rest. But writer-director Ken Scott builds a more complex character with a series of emotional arcs designed to force the quintessential Vaughn man-child to grow up. For fans of the 2011 French Canadian "Starbuck" on which "Delivery Man" is based, Scott has refined the story without losing the baby or the bath water. Indeed some of the slapstick is exactly the same. (Scott directed and co-wrote "Starbuck" with Martin Petit.)
As the film opens, David is a man under siege — a huge debt is owed to some questionable characters. He's the family's favorite whipping boy, disappointing dad and his two younger brothers, Victor (Simon Delaney) and Aleksy ("SNL's" Bobby Moynihan) on a daily basis. Still they adore him.
Girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) announces she's pregnant when he shows up at her front door after being missing in action for a while. A by-the-book New York City cop, she essentially puts him on fatherhood probation.
And then there is the matter of the 533 kids he's just found out he fathered.
When David's served with a class-action suit to unmask Starbuck's identity, it comes with a packet filled with 142 pages — the faces and profiles of the progeny who want to meet him. Brett, an overwhelmed single father of four and an underqualified attorney, takes his friend's case and issues a warning to never look inside. But like Pandora's box, the urge is impossible to resist, the result impossible to contain.
As so often happens in the real world, having kids forces even the most reluctant to grow up, David included. When he starts showing up in a few of the kids' lives — still anonymous — so does a sense of responsibility. They come in all colors. Some are gay. One is disabled. All have issues. Stereotypes abound.
A few of them are singled out for the purpose of putting David through the parenting ringer. The most skillfully drawn are Britt Robertson's young woman on the edge, Dave Patten's struggling street musician, Sébastien René's silent wheelchair-using teen and Adam Chanler-Berat's needy goth, the one who actually moves in and proceeds to drive David crazy with existential debates.
The film shifts frequently between David's very traditional, tight-knit Polish family headed by Mikolaj's benevolent patriarch, the nontraditional one that is forming around the donor kids, and his future family with Emma. The life lessons are nearly as numerous as the offspring, which puts Vaughn in almost every scene and keeps the ideas from being explored very deeply.
Still, it works to get the actor out of his post-"Old School" and "Wedding Crashers" rut. While Scott's light touch makes David's maturing entertaining, what's more fun is watching Vaughn, the actor, come into his own.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, sexual content, some drug material, brief violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: In general release
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