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Ebiri on Delivery Man: An Alleged Comedy With a Sentimental Heart

The first thing to know about the new Vince Vaughn sperm-donor comedy Delivery Man is that there are about five jokes in it. Not five good jokes, or five edgy jokes, or five memorable jokes. Just five jokes. (And for the record, two of them are okay.) But we probably shouldn’t even call it a comedy. It’s more a sentimental fable, albeit one with an absurdist, and absurdly, high concept: What happens if an aimless, irresponsible fortysomething who made hundreds of donations to a sperm bank in his youth learns one day that he has 533 kids?

You may have images dancing in your head of wacky interactions between our hero and his hundreds of offspring, catastrophic misunderstandings and hilarious lies stacked high like pancakes, but no. Delivery Man is simple but serious, sensitive but ridiculous. Because of some legal shenanigans, David Wozniak (Vaughn) has to maintain his anonymity, but he starts going through the list of his kids, trying to secretly connect with them. The first child Dave uncovers turns out to be an NBA star. The next turns out to be a struggling actor and jerky bartender. Then there’s the beautiful junkie. The street musician. The African-American manicurist.

We get a few minutes with each of these kids, and then it’s on to the next one. At one point, one of Dave’s more intellectual kids (he wears black and quotes Tolstoy, see?) uncovers the secret, but wants this father figure all to himself, so he moves in; you think the movie’s about to settle into a more standard getting-to-know-you and/or odd-couple plot, but this thread is eventually discarded as well. Even Dave’s pregnant girlfriend, Emma (Cobie Smulders), supposedly a motivating factor in his decision to become a responsible father, just pops in whenever it’s convenient for the story. (If you said this character had been belatedly written into the film, I’d believe you.) At least Emma gets more screen time than the loan sharks to whom Dave allegedly owes money. The movie can’t be bothered with the story it’s set itself up to tell.

The above descriptions do no justice to how strange a movie Delivery Man is. An example: After Dave brings one daughter (Britt Robertson), a junkie, to the hospital following an overdose, he has to decide between signing her out (which is what she wants) and signing her up for rehab (which is what a kindly doctor wants). It’s a tense, serious little scene, as Dave walks back and forth between the doctor and the daughter, torn about the first actual parental decision of his life — except that director Ken Scott overlays some jaunty dunk-dunk-dunkdunkdunk music over the scene, which throws us. Wait, you find yourself asking, is this supposed to be funny?

Still, there are sweet moments amid the atonal chaos. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tear up at Dave’s interactions with one particular child, a severely disabled man who seems to have been abandoned in a nursing home. Dave’s own father (played by Andrzej Blumenfeld), a Polish immigrant, gets some touching scenes as well. The couple of decent laughs in the film come from Chris Pratt, playing Dave’s schlubby lawyer friend Brett, who agrees to help him in the class-action lawsuit that 142 of his kids have filed, demanding to know his identity. But even the jokes in this alleged comedy feel like they’ve been airlifted in from somewhere else.

Vaughn has done this kind of genre bait-and-switch before, to varying results: The Break-Up was marketed as a wacky romantic comedy, only to turn out to be a (not entirely unwelcome) comedy-drama about the difficulty of moving on after the end of a relationship. Delivery Man is a lot less certain about what it wants to be. Nothing quite seems to fit, as if the movie’s been assembled from bits and pieces of other movies. That could describe a lot of movies today, but Delivery Man feels more unformed, as if nobody’s bothered to give it that extra coat of slick Hollywood paint to cover up the patchwork beneath.

One final word on Vince Vaughn: I like the guy, I really do. And in Delivery Man, he maintains his usual veneer of sluggish charm throughout. But how odd that an actor who once had such boundless, chatty energy – back in the days of Swingers and Made – is today known for playing slobby, slothful slackers? He’s not particularly animated here, either. He doesn’t need to be, but I sure do miss the fast-talking dynamo that exploded onto movie screens so many years ago. Watching him now, I just feel old.

Photo: DreamWorks