David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), the protagonist of Ken Scott's comedy-drama Starbuck, is a likeable Montreal bachelor in his early forties, who works for his father's meat delivery business. Years ago, he made hundreds of donations to a local sperm clinic to pay off his debts. Then, as the story opens, he receives horrifying news from his attorney -- the...read more
David Wozniak (Patrick Huard), the protagonist of Ken Scott's comedy-drama Starbuck, is a likeable Montreal bachelor in his early forties, who works for his father's meat delivery business. Years ago, he made hundreds of donations to a local sperm clinic to pay off his debts. Then, as the story opens, he receives horrifying news from his attorney -- the clinic proprietors apparently used his sperm to impregnate hundreds of female clients. The resulting 533 children have united in a massive class-action lawsuit designed to reveal the anonymous identity of their paternal donor, whom the press dubs “Starbuck.” But while David's identity is unavailable to them, the attorney provides him with the names, photographs and personal information of each of his offspring, and he begins to observe their lives from a distance. Meanwhile, David's ex-girlfriend, Valerie (Julie Le Breton) informs him that she's pregnant, though she fully expects this irresponsible, immature man to have nothing to do with the child.
Quebecois cinema has turned out some of the most exciting recent films in memory, movies that push and defy the boundaries of form, content and subject matter, such as Elle veut le chaos, Nuit #1 and Vital Signs. Starbuck isn't one of those pictures. This is a traditional, old-fashioned, feel-good comedy-drama, as formulaic and Hollywood-inspired as the others were idiosyncratic and culturally specific -- so it certainly shouldn't come as a surprise that Tinseltown has reportedly optioned the rights to do a remake with Vince Vaughn as the lead. But it's still an affable enough commercial picture on its own terms -- lighthearted, breezy and amiable, with a very funny -- one might say inspired -- central conceit.
In addition to the film's premise being rich with possibilities, it is admittedly tricky: Hollywood has turned out its share of horrible comedies about sperm donation, in-vitro fertilization, and conception, such as George Miller's abominable Frozen Assets (1992) and Jay Chandrasekhar's wretched The Babymakers (2012) -- each of which wallowed in the skank-pit. Writer-director Ken Scott is sharp and astute enough to avoid this pitfall by a mile; what's great and uncanny about Starbuck in its best moments is its ability to occasionally earn belly laughs without sinking into raunch. It has several laugh-out-loud moments, such as the rationale that David delivers to his girlfriend about the benefits of having 533 grown children: “We're like the first astronauts...And I foresee a great deal of free babysitting” -- and a recurring substory where David's thuggish creditors intimidate him by showing up in his bed and torturing him with bathtub immersion.
That narrative thread points to the movie's unusual strength: Scott's ability to generate laughs by darting around the fringes of his conceit, and to stay droll without really getting into the ickiness of the donation process. This is even true of an opening masturbation sequence, seen in flashback and set in one of the rooms at the clinic: a staff member provides David with some hardcore pornographic magazines for stimulation, and he briefly, and wryly, becomes distracted by an article in one of the publications. That type of gag is tethered to the premise, and therefore edgy, yet somehow peripheral enough to avoid the gross-out effect. The idea of a nutty sperm bank proprietor exclusively using the semen from one donor ad infinitum is inherently funny as well, though the picture doesn't get nearly enough comedic mileage out of it.
Having said that, one does wish that Scott had upped the humor quotient quite a bit and downplayed the earnestness. When the picture gets into David's attempts to bond with his biological children, and his intervention in several of their lives like a guardian angel, the movie grows too sentimental. At first, (as in some wonderful sequences with a severely disabled boy), it even achieves the heart-tugging that it's striving for. But it falters when it begins to sacrifice credibility for the sake of audience emotional response, and the seams start to show. For instance, can we honestly be expected to believe that none of the adult children would be able to identify David as the donor after he attends a meeting for all of the lawsuit claimants, stands up at the event and makes a public spectacle of himself, and then runs into several of the children at the same time in the lobby? The shifts in external opinions about David also seem phony and difficult to swallow, constructed as they are for the sole purpose of generating a response from the audience.
With that in mind, the picture would have benefitted from a slightly tougher, sharper script that is less cloying and easy on its characters, and relies much less on formulaic convention. What saves it is the viability of the central idea -- a nice but irresponsible man growing up for the first time and learning to take control of his life and responsibilities -- and a winning central performance by Huard that somehow makes the central arc credible and persuasive enough to transcend the movie's many contrivances.
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