“Starbuck” has a comic premise that Kevin Smith might envy: After years of donating sperm, a truck driver discovers that he has sired more than 500 kids—and now 142 of them want to know the identity of their prolific dad.
At first glance, this French-Canadian production fits cozily into the present American trend of building pseudo-edgy comedies around cases of young male arrested development. (Recent entries include “Ted,” “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” and “Goon,” three slacker portraits that couch transgressive jokes in customary coming-of-age trajectories.) Still, what’s most provocative about “Starbuck” is how director Ken Scott flouts current comedy trends in favor of something less bawdy and more sincere. In the age of Smith and Apatow, Scott’s choice to not capitalize on his story’s latent raunch could be construed as a revolutionary act. There’s something bold about not pushing boundaries when being outrageous is de rigueur.
Twenty years ago, David Wozniak earned thousands filling cups at a fertility clinic, under the code name Starbuck (the alias alludes to a famously fruitful Holstein bull). Now he’s a fortysomething jock in an Avengers t-shirt with loan shark debts and a pregnant girlfriend who makes clear that his man-child behavior won’t be permitted near the baby. After all, this is a man who observes that boogers are a first-rate source of protein.
He also isn’t very good at his job making deliveries for his father’s butcher shop—David has always made a living working with meat—and yet he is an affable, gentle bear who readily concedes his failings. Québécois comedian Patrick Huard (think Jason Segel crossed with Daniel Auteuil) gives the film its gusto; he’s so vivid and befuddled and unadulterated in the role that you immediately respond to David’s shambling spirit, even as it perpetually backfires on him. It’s easy to groove on Huard’s broad antics, but just as easy to believe that David is genuinely willing to embrace adulthood, and, by extension, fatherhood.
What does it mean to be a dad? David never thinks about the answer until he is served with a class-action lawsuit seeking to out him as Starbuck, anonymous father of hundreds. Rejecting his attorney’s advice, David starts looking up his grown offspring, and senses such unexpected pride that he resolves to intercede in their lives. David soon embraces his new role as a stealth guardian angel who helps an actor reach a pivotal audition, intervenes on behalf of a junkie daughter, and visits a disabled boy who otherwise receives no attention.
Thankfully the earnestness of this redemption mission is frequently leavened by uproarious consequences. Much of “Starbuck” plays as farce with crack comic timing, and Scott sustains an impressive balance of frenetic hijinks, deadpan one-liners, and slower, truthful emotion. It’s light on its feet, and, except for a misjudged scene that settles for cheap jokes about one son’s athletic ineptitude, never cartoony. Despite the big laughs, the movie still takes seriously the notions that being a father requires wisdom and sacrifice, not merely devotion, and that some moral imperatives exist beyond our legal obligations.
The gossamer sweetness that envelops the end of the movie is not unwelcome, but not always convincing either. A climactic scene where David’s offspring arrive at the hospital to welcome his newborn is too on-the-nose by half—yes, today David becomes a dad, in more ways than one—and the various plot strands dovetail perhaps too neatly into the film’s overarching themes about fatherhood. But for the most part the story is smart, brisk, and devoid of sitcom manipulations, and Huard is so good that his performance rides right over the film’s weaknesses.
“Starbuck” is big-hearted and honest in pleasing proportion. Still, I wonder what advice the newly grown-up David might have for director Ken Scott, who has also started to reproduce for cash—a Hollywood remake, helmed again by Scott and starring Vince Vaughn, will be delivered later this year.