“Your father’s habit of having sex with girls half his age is getting old, so I’m gonna take off for a while.”
To virtually everyone of my generation, Christopher McDonald will forever be Shooter McGavin from “Happy Gilmore” – though the more film literate members of my generation may always think of him as Tappy Tibbons from “Requiem for a Dream.” He’s one of those stalwart character actors who seems like he’s just never been given a shot to show how good he is as an actor. Along comes “Don’t Worry Baby,” a film that plays to his unique strengths of being simultaneously repulsive and lovable.
McDonald plays Harry, a serial womanizer who seems to be legitimately trying to be a better person by offering his photographer son Robert (John Magaro) a job working at his elite New York City preschool. Robert turns down the offer, thinking that he’s going to make it as a photographer, but after a four-year time jump, Robert has caved to the pressure and put his dreams on hold to take up his father’s offer. Far from a happy father-son reunion, their relationship becomes even more strained when they discover that they both slept with the same woman, Sara-Beth (Dreama Walker), four years ago and either one of them could be the father of her young daughter, Mason (Rainn Williams).
What seems at first like your standard rom-com set-up is nicely subverted by the fact that the film never forces Sara-Beth to suffer the indignity of being a plot device. At every turn, I was waiting for the film to fall into conventional tropes of the genre that would have her be nothing more than a vehicle for these two man-children to learn that there’s more to life than themselves, but first-time director Julian Branciforte skirts these contrivances gracefully.
The film does suffer a bit from focusing too much on these men and their issues, but thankfully the scenes between Sara-Beth and Miriam (Talia Balsam) – wife to Harry and mother to Robert – are among the best in the film. What could have easily been a typical, for lack of a better word, slut-shaming side plot, turns into the heart of the film as these two women discover that they have more in common than just the men they’ve slept with. It’s something the film could have used a little bit more of, to be honest, but progress is progress and we should celebrate any film that takes even a baby step in the right direction.
The film was shot entirely on location in New York City and shows a different side of the most famous city in the world that we haven’t seen much on film. Hanging out in Chinese restaurants and loft apartments with great views, the film’s authenticity rings through thanks to the beautiful location work.
If there’s a major complaint I have about the film, it’s the character of Lenny (Tom Lipinski). As Robert’s roommate, Lenny is the biggest cliche of a character in the film, serving as comic relief more than an actual three-dimensional person, forcing everyone around him to look like a fully functional human being by comparison. He’s far too hackneyed to make an impact of any kind, but I feel that’s a flaw of the script rather than his performance.
There should be a special Oscar given to anyone who has had to suffer the indignity of being the villain in an Adam Sandler movie, and McDonald is long overdue. He shines in this film, bringing a world-weariness to the table that makes him seem more pitiable than loathsome. Magaro also does solid work as Robert, though his character arc is a bit more conventional than McDonald’s. Special kudos should also be given to Williams, who does a fantastic job in the company of such accomplished adults.
“Don’t Worry Baby” is far from a perfect film, and it falls into a conventional rhythm far too often, but it’s got a ton of heart and it wears it brazenly on its sleeve. As a character study that offers glimmers of change to a well-worn genre, it’s damn successful, and frankly, any chance that we get to see Christopher McDonald sink his teeth into such a well-rounded character is one worth taking.