'Nanny McPhee' puts everything right

Nanny McPhee was last seen in 2005 arriving to set right a dysfunctional family needing more than an intervention. They needed the McPhee magic, delivered by a snaggletooth, starched, ominous and mysterious nanny who arrives with magic at her fingertips and a cane to put things right. McPhee is a wonderful character, played perfectly by the gifted Emma Thompson.

In the recent incarnation, "Nanny McPhee Returns," written by Thompson, McPhee arrives at a bucolic farm in northern England. It's the middle of World War II and children from London, which is subjected to Germany's blitzkrieg bombing, are sent across England to wait out the war, most in the safety of the English countryside.

And so we are introduced to the Green children and their mother, Isabel Green (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The family is hanging on by a thread, financially and emotionally, while waiting for the father to return from the war in Europe.

What is a normal state of chaos on the farm turns chronic when cousins Cyril (Eros Vlahos) and Cella (Rosie Taylor-Ritson), arrive from upper-crust London in a chauffer-driven limousine. Dressed to the nines, they refuse to step out of the car, holding their noses, insisting they've arrived at a "poo and mud" museum. Everything is icky, they want to go home, and they dig in their snobbish, custom made-heels, refusing to help out.

Things are dire. Isabel's brother-in-law (Rhys Ifans), a weasel, is trying to sell the farm to pay off gambling debts, the barley needs to be harvested, and a new batch of piglets must be sold to keep the family afloat. What to do?

Enter Nanny McPhee. Just in time. Ready to teach the kids five life-lessons that will transform them and the farm, to the delight of all.

The film is enhanced by CGI — pigs can and do fly and even synchronize swim — but at its center is a wonderful cast of characters that is charming and engaging. Kids and adults will enjoy without reservation this entertaining film that delivers a heart-tugging ending wherein Nanny McPhee does indeed put everything right.

The Switch

Romantic comedies such as "The Switch" follow an established Hollywood formula that traces its roots back to Shakespeare.

The pattern is familiar: two protagonists, who either meet cute or are good friends, have a mutual attraction that they either don't recognize or can't work out. It's always complicated. They have a falling out, or circumstances conspire to separate them. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. They're reunited, and once again it's complicated. Despite the obstacles, false starts, even an almost wedding, they manage to find each other and it's at that pregnant moment, with the sound track taking it to the next level, that one makes a grand gesture, declaring his or her love while telling the truth.

Finally, their lives intersect and it's no longer complicated. Clarity replaces obfuscation. Denouement: a wide shot of the couple's wedding, standing before a minister/rabbi, to the relief of friends and audience.

So, the expectation for romantic comedies is not that they be original in plot, but that the variations on a familiar theme are fresh and above all comedic, even a bit screwball, perhaps, but always entertaining because the writers find a hook that engages. And therein is the rub. The creative hook. But when they succeed, these rom-coms can be uniquely entertaining, examples being "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "You've Got Mail," "Notting Hill," or, more recently, the senior citizen rom-com, "It's Complicated."

Over the last 12 months, Hollywood has released a bevy of such comedies, with all manner of movie stars giving their best effort with pretty dismal results.

The just-released "The Switch" is one more attempt at a romantic comedy starring the ubiquitous Jennifer Aniston, "America's sweetheart," denizen of "People Magazine," ingénue of Sunset Boulevard, who teams up with veteran character actor Jason Bateman. The plot: young urban woman, Kassie (Aniston), failing to find a suitable mate in New York City and feeling the biological clock ticking, decides to have a child. Skipping the local sperm bank, she sets out to find a donor, announcing to her BFF Wally (Bateman), a financial analyst, that she's in the hunt. Strangely, though he would be the ideal candidate — smart, professional, a long-term friend — he doesn't make the final cut. OK, he is a bit neurotic.

Kassie finds the perfect donor, Roland (Patrick Wilson), and holds an insemination party (really!) where he, Roland, will bring his contribution and Kassie will later let the swimmers do their stuff. Wally is present; however, he's upset because he's been benched and proceeds to get drunk. While using the bathroom, he knocks over Roland's donor cup (whoops!) and substitutes his own swimmers for Roland's. No harm no foul. Or so he thinks. Seven years go by. Kassie, having left New York to raise her baby, Sebastian (Thomas Robinson), returns to the City. Wally and Sebastian are like two lost socks finally reunited. A matched pair. Same looks, same neuroses. Kassie, of course, doesn't see the similarities. Wally does. What to do? Tell Kassie all? Make the grand gesture? Declare his love for her and for Sebastian?

As mentioned, the formula is not new — not even the idea of young metro-women deciding that they don't need men to become mothers. Recall the recent Jennifer Lopez vehicle, "The Back-up Plan," wherein she is artificially inseminated, walks out of the doctor's office, and meets cute the guy she has been looking for pre-insemination. But what if she's pregnant? What to do?

"The Back-up Plan" was tedious and contrived with few good comedic scenes. "The Switch" suffers from the same lack of inspiration. It seems a bit half-hearted. The protagonists — Kassie and Wally — have an absence of real chemistry and it's not clear why they've been friends for more than a decade. There's no engaging dialogue, no edge to this film, no moment that is sweet and endearing, and the scenes that should be laugh-out-loud funny aren't. It's neither romantic nor comedic and joins a growing list of rom-com misses.

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