* * * 1/2
Starbuck is the kind of movie certain cynical critics love to pooh-pooh, and which audiences love to love. Guess which one is out of touch? A warm human comedy wrapped up in the guise of a sitcom, the French-Canadian hit, about a forty-two-year-old Montreal slacker who unexpectedly grows up after discovering he has fathered 533 kids as a sperm donor, is a joyous little picture informed by a tremendously empathetic lead performance from actor Patrick Huard. As an aging, paunchy, funny-sad clown who leaps at a second chance to make something out of his life, Huard gives us a surprisingly complex character at a crossroads. His face is the story in tender Starbuck—a marvel of sustained melancholy and self-effacement—and he delivers a moving portrait of a nice guy who makes good.
David Wozniak (Huard) has a lot of problems. Broke and in debt to the tune of $80,000 while (barely) working a delivery driver for his father’s butcher shop, he’s also the family joke, a perpetually irresponsible black sheep who is late, forgetful and can’t even pick up the dry cleaning without incident, losing the family soccer team’s jerseys just in time for their first game. He’s good-hearted but can’t catch a break, or a loan even, rejected by every bank in town. Things become further complicated when girlfriend Valerie (Julie LeBreton) announces she’s pregnant, and has reservations about settling down with such an unstable guy, informing him she is set to raise their child alone.
And then, a bombshell. David is shocked to learn that 533 young adults are the product of his early years masturbating into a cup for cash—and 142 of those have filed a suit against the fertility clinic to reveal his identity. Taking on the legal counsel of his best buddy (a hilariously droll Antoine Bertrand), David initially rejects their existence, but curiosity gets the better of him and he begins an odyssey to seek out his “children,” anonymously interacting with them. They include a famous soccer star, a drug-addict he saves then later gets out of the hospital, an institutionalized autistic, a struggling actor and various other types, from a lifeguard to a gay playboy and so on. Each of these episodic vignettes is engaging and never played for cheap laughs or unearned sentiment. We come to know a few of his offspring, notably Goth vegan Antoine (David Michael), who figures out his dad’s identity and promptly moves into David’s bachelor pad, himself with an idea or two about what makes a family.
How the film resolves the legal situation is not how we expect, and the film has much to say about men of a certain age, fathers and sons and figuring out what matters—indeed if David chooses not to be a father, what else is he going to do with himself? Even for a guy about whom everyone has already made their mind, there are many others out there who still need him—and this realization as delivered by star Huard is gratifying.
What the film is getting at is middle age and its spoils, especially for a guy like David who has made nary a mark in the world, and it’s this mid-life crisis that Huard so beautifully captures, unshaven, unkempt, always looking too tired and worn down—yet there’s still hope in his eyes. He is still capable of turning things around, and does, not through heavy-handed plotting but rather a series of genuine emotional shifts that come late in the film. What Starbuck says—and it’s a great message today—is that love connects us, even when complicated, and that there is great “satisfaction in making a difference in someone’s life,” as David observes during one important scene. I was unprepared for how effective some of the picture’s later scenes were, including a surprising family dinner discussion, a father-son reunification, a tranquil lakeside sojourn gathering of all David’s children and a pointed hospital confrontation between David and Valerie, where David comes full circle.
Instead of going for the obvious, director Ken Scott (who co-wrote the screenplay with Martin Petit) goes inward, giving us a portrait of a guy trying to do right by himself and everyone else, a comedy informed by immense sadness. The picture is in development for an American remake titled The Delivery Man (cue the pratfalls and hijinks with the broadness undoubtedly set to be the main attraction), starring Vince Vaughn, who hasn’t in any regard indicated he is up to the level of maturity and lived-in wisdom Huard conveys—the principle reason Starbuck moves us so.
I was bowled over by the emotional canvas in Starbuck, and I’m not embarrassed to say the movie choked me up throughout.