— Jennifer Aniston's upcoming film, "The Switch," is intended as a romantic comedy, but its premise sounds neither romantic nor particularly funny. Aniston plays a 40-year-old woman who uses an anonymous sperm donor to get pregnant, then finds out years later that her male best friend (Jason Bateman) switched out the anonymous sample with his own. The movie's working title, "The Baster," is probably closer to the sort of "humor" the audience can anticipate enduring at the expense of women with reproductive challenges.
It's not that we as a culture can't have any sense of humor about those challenges. It's that Aniston doesn't have the best track record of choosing scripts that deliver on the potential of a concept like that — or on her own potential.
Despite an otherwise-solid cast (Bateman, Jeff Goldblum, "Angels in America"'s Patrick Wilson), "The Switch" looks depressingly like the B-minus-at-best fare we've come to expect from Aniston: the double-takes, the cutesy pained faces, and the careful smoothing of precisely highlighted hair away from her brow with a flawlessly manicured fingernail. The question is, should we expect any better from the former "Friends" star? Or should Jennifer Aniston have worn out her impeccably groomed welcome by now?
It depends on what we mean by "better." Aniston isn't without talent; she does do some things well (besides having great hair and toned arms). She's experienced at letting bigger and wackier onscreen personalities like Vince Vaughn (her co-star in "The Break-Up") and Ben Stiller ("Along Came Polly") work the punchlines, and that's harder than it looks.
And Aniston is relatable. She's pretty, but not intimidatingly so; she has a sweetness to her, a sense that she's a good friend, and that sense translates to many of her roles.
Doomed to play a mom?
Some of that relatability may proceed from events in her personal life, too — she's rich and famous, she's cute, and she still wound up divorced, and forced to answer intrusive questions from late-night hosts about if/when she's going to have kids. Anyone who's ever gotten cheated on, or had to defend her life choices to her mother ad nauseam, feels for Aniston, who has to go through it in the spotlight, and whose attractive charm was evidently no match for the gorgeous, dangerous, slightly unhinged and therefore fascinating Angelina Jolie — who also has an Oscar to her name. Ouch.
Sweet, relatable, and well turned-out is great, and Hollywood needs patient/long-suffering moms, too (Aniston's main job in "Marley & Me" and "Iron Giant"), but it's probably not enough long-term. The cruel Hollywood reality is that, at 41, Aniston doesn't have much time left with romantic-lead/ingénue roles. If she wants to find work as anything besides a mom going forward, she'll need to show serious range — but it's range she doesn't seem to have.
You have to give her credit for trying to build such a range — she's taken a run at all manner of tougher, less sanitized roles. Those parts haven't historically worked out, though, and it's not always the fault of the casting. Aniston's character in "The Good Girl" as written is an off-putting grab-bag of non-credible quirks and voice-overs, and the script for "Derailed" is such a mess that even Clive Owen, who's more experienced with playing dark than Aniston, comes off stiff and overmatched.
But it's hard to imagine Aniston believably playing a cuckolding Wal-Mart employee, or the bait in a violent con, in better scripts, either. Even in a sharply observed story like Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money," in which Aniston plays an adrift stoner maid whose upper-middle-class friends don't understand what she's doing with her life, Aniston isn't plausible. You can't forget that it's basically stunt-casting, the chance to watch Rachel Greene stagily smoking pot while heavyweights like Frances McDormand do the actual acting.
What's next for Aniston?
Is Aniston doomed to play sterile, unsubtle foils in increasingly desperate-seeming rom-coms; age out of the demographic; and disappear?
Unlikely. She does need to seek better advice about prospective projects, and to take real risks, with her appearance and with the way she's perceived. Cute and presentable is a perfectly logical career arc, and it's not as though it's not working for her, in its way.
But the florist Aniston plays in "Love Happens" is a textbook example of the rut she's in: the Eloise character and her twee career function primarily as a foil for Aaron Eckhart's in-denial widower Burke, and she's the only florist in history never to have soil under her fingernails. Aniston has little to do besides look frustrated and sweetly sympathetic by turns, and neither actress nor character has much at stake.
"Uglying up" for a role, a strategy used by actresses since time immemorial, is a cliché — because it works. Aniston might not have the chops, or desire, to take on a potato nose or stringy hair like Nicole Kidman or Charlize Theron, but she could let herself get a little flabby, or play a bitch now and then. ("The Break-Up" showcased her ability to dig into an obnoxious role, but the script seemed to think some of Brooke's behavior was funny, versus off-putting.)
"Derailed" positions her as a con artist, but the audience feels her reluctance to go to those darker places, to explore what it means when a woman fakes a rape as a means to blackmail, and onscreen, it plays flatly — partly because of the messy script, but mostly because Aniston doesn't commit to becoming a jerk.
Jennifer Aniston has spent a long time coasting on the culture's good will, content to receive our pity regarding her personal life and to continue playing lovable, sympathetic, freshly showered, boring, undemanding roles that don't ask for much of her except shiny hair. Or perhaps she's not content, and simply too scared to push further. But if Aniston doesn't ask more from herself and her career — attempt more difficult, less agreeable roles — she'll have nothing to do once that famous hair turns grey for good. And for actresses Of A Certain Age, that's the scariest prospect of all.