News Column

'Delivery Man' review: Infertile array of cliches

November 22, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 22--Comedy. Starring Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders and Andrzej Blumenfeld. Directed by Ken Scott. (PG-13. 103 minutes.)

"Delivery Man" is nowhere near the worst film of 2013, but it is definitely the most exhausting.

The main character seems to exist in 36-hour days without any sleep. There appear to be montages within the montages. The sperm-donor-acting-as-guardian-angel plot is like watching six seasons of "Highway to Heaven" crammed into one 103-minute sitting.

The biggest problem is a punishing script, piling on so many cliches that reality begins to feel warped. Meanwhile, the actors do little to mask the deficiencies. This is a film that a 2000s Will Ferrell or early 1980s Eddie Murphy might have willed into being funny. Present-day Vince Vaughn doesn't stand a chance.

Vaughn is David, a meat delivery guy who is terrible at his job, but still beloved in the family business because he's such a nice guy. It says something about the predictability of the screenplay that David owes $80,000 to the mob and has a girlfriend who announces she's pregnant at his lowest moment.

David donated sperm 18-plus years ago under the pseudonym Starbuck, and now more than 100 of his 533 children want to know who he is. "Delivery Man" is a copy of the 2011 French-Canadian film "Starbuck," which had the same writer/director but benefited from an "R" rating and indie sensibility. ("Delivery Man" just barely grazes the lower edges of PG-13, with mild masturbation and drug references. Watching this family-friendly film, it's hard to imagine that "Jaws" was once a PG movie.)

The screenplay repeatedly relies on logical gymnastics to move the action forward. "Delivery Man" is the type of movie where a character decides to file a lawsuit, and in the next scene his lawyer is working out his closing arguments -- which end up being three sentences long. Worst of all is the unfounded decision to make Starbuck a national pariah. At a time when a celebrity known for a sex tape can end up with her own clothing line, the guy who fathered 533 children would be more beloved than Mr. Rogers.

Vaughn is strangely subdued in the role, which would normally be a blessing. But with very little scripted humor, a force-of-nature performance was the best chance to save the film. Most of the humor is based on David's constant stress. The jokes often miss, and all we have left is that harried tension. There are other times when the comic and dramatic momentum is left to the musical score, a blend of pianos and strings seemingly mixed extra loud so audiences never forget how they're supposed to feel.

Two of the smaller performances help to make the film tolerable: Chris Pratt is well used as Brett, David's sad-sack best friend and incompetent lawyer. (His four humorously blunt children turn out to be a nice Greek chorus.)

Andrzej Blumenfeld is wonderful as David's father, Mikolaj. The actor, whose career was built overseas, steals every scene he's in, with a gruff-but-loving paternal understanding that he can convey with a gesture. This must be Poland's Paul Dooley.

Peter Hartlaub is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop culture critic. E-mail: phartlaub@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @PeterHartlaub

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