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‘Delivery Man’ delivers Vaughn’s soft side

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 10:56 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 10:57 a.m. CDT

In the 17 years since “Swingers,” Vince Vaughn has cultivated the comedic persona of an obnoxious and insensitive boor, so it may come as a surprise to learn that “Delivery Man” reveals a softer side entirely.

As David Wozniak, the world’s most fertile sperm donor, the star plays someone who’s overwhelmed as opposed to merely overwhelming. It’s a welcome change, though a significant marketing challenge as well, considering DreamWorks has almost no way of letting audiences know that “Delivery Man” is virtually nothing like a Vince Vaughn movie, but rather a heartfelt celebration of the act of parenthood presented under radically exaggerated circumstances.

Such sincerity comes easy for Canadian writer-director Ken Scott, who’s already told this story once before in the charming French-language hit “Starbuck.” Now, working in Hollywood, he demonstrates the good sense not to mess with success, engineering what amounts to a scene-for-scene remake of that earlier feel-good outing – with the notable addition of Chris Pratt in his funniest supporting performance yet.

Transplanted from Montreal to Manhattan for the benefit of this new version, Wozniak drives a deli-meat truck, but even that task proves too much responsibility for his stunted abilities. Vaughn’s character may not be the sharpest blade in the family butchery, but he has a good soul, which comes through the instant he receives news that would send any normal man into panic mode.

Nearly 20 years earlier, he donated dozens of times to a fertility clinic, which, through an administrative fluke, used his sperm to foster 533 children, 142 of whom are demanding to know the identity of their biological father. More shocking for Wozniak is the revelation that his policewoman g.f. (Cobie Smulders) is pregnant, though neither revelation is particularly easy to process for a man who grows marijuana in his apartment and has more parking tickets than dollars to his name.

Presented with a packet of information about his children, Wozniak draws one page at random and decides to pay the kid a visit, eavesdropping on a professional basketball game where his son scores the winning shot. For a split second, the film allows audiences to think that perhaps this sub-average shlub could be responsible for fathering 533 exceptional offspring: a mix of athletes, stars and world leaders.

That’s the beauty of Scott’s script, which supplies precisely the emotional uplift moviegoers want, while still managing to surprise at every turn. The circumstances may be contrived, but the characters feel refreshingly genuine.

“Delivery Man” skips over all the diaper changes and sleepless nights and gets to the essence of parenthood, when fathers must learn to put aside their preconceived expectations and accept their children for who they are. Life is well underway for most of them when Wozniak enters into the picture, and the movie celebrates the diversity of possibility, presenting him with offspring of all colors and personalities.

The film’s biggest surprise comes at a perfectly conceived moment set at a conference that steers what could have settled for farce into far deeper territory. Where so many laffers rush to dismiss raw emotion with an ironic wink, Scott isn’t afraid to get sentimental.

It would be no stretch at all to interpret “Delivery Man” as a pro-life movie, illustrating as it does the miraculous range of individual personalities that can result from the same set of paternal genes, each one special in its own way. But Scott’s warm-hearted humanism extends further than family, as if to remind that we are all brothers and sisters, with more in common than could possibly separate us. Even if your soul can’t stand the thought of Vince Vaughn at the center of a 143-person group hug, there’s no denying this marks a turning point for the star. With Scott’s help, he has delivered a rare and special package indeed.

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