'Switch' a bitch for Jennifer Aniston

Why the star's latest film failed at the box office

The moviegoing public's on-again, off-again love affair with Jennifer Aniston hit another troubled patch during the weekend as her latest comedy, "The Switch," opened to a dispiriting $8.4 million.

From the start, there was concern within the Aniston camp that the offbeat comedy, which also stars Jason Bateman as a surprise sperm donor, was a tricky sell. "Switch" was produced independently for about $19 million by Mandate and Bona Fide Prods. As filming began, Miramax picked up domestic rights for about $6 million. Then the movie nearly became an orphan when Disney decided to sell Miramax to an investment group headed by Ron Tutor.

Ultimately, Disney agreed to distribute the title for a fee through its Touchstone label. Sources claim that the studio promised the "Switch" team it would give the movie the same level of support that helped turn Sandra Bullock's romantic comedy "The Proposal" into a hit last summer but that Disney's ad buy ultimately fell short of that mark. There was even talk that Aniston confronted Disney marketing head M.T. Carney about the issue.

Neither Aniston's representatives nor Disney would comment on the situation. But a source close to the film said Aniston, who served as an executive producer with her producing partner Kristin Hahn, "was ferocious and tireless on behalf of the movie and is to be greatly admired for that."

If there was a disconnect between her and the studio, it probably came out of the fact that Disney, which inherited the film, didn't have the same sense of ownership in the project that drove CBS Films to lavish TV airtime on similarly themed Jennifer Lopez rom-com "The Back-up Plan" in April. And even with CBS' backing, "Plan" was no winner, opening to $12.2 million and grossing only $37.5 million domestically. Artificial insemination, it turns out, is the new boxoffice poison.

In an odd way, though, Aniston's current boxoffice troubles don't necessarily represent a setback.

Just as the tabloids have turned her personal life into an ongoing saga of triumph over heartbreak, she has overcome equally long odds in Hollywood, becoming the only member of the "Friends" ensemble to graduate to a full-time film career.

Although some in the business describe her as a second-tier movie star, she's reliably second-tier. As one producer explained: "She's probably still a giant television star. If she would do it, she could name her price. Her movies aren't very good, but they're not embarrassing. She's always pleasant, and she always looks kind of pretty. She's really well-liked in the town. She's a good friend, a supergood client, very hardworking."

In fact, Aniston will give a boost to her pal Courteney Cox by appearing as a therapist on the Season 2 premiere of Cox's ABC sitcom "Cougar Town," the first time the two have worked together since a 2007 episode of FX's "Dirt."

Offering an even more upbeat assessment, another producer said: "As an actress, she's sort of effortless -- good with comedy and comfortable in those roles. She just doesn't get credit for the ease with which she does these things."

Against a film resume that is decidedly mixed, ranging from such lows as "Derailed" and last year's "Love Happens" to such highs as "The Break-Up" and "Marley & Me," "Switch" eventually might be seen as just another stumble that sets the stage for her next recovery.

Already, the actress has completed filming a new Adam Sandler movie, "Just Go for It," which Sony will release in February, and she is at work on the ensemble comedy "Horrible Bosses" for New Line.

As a film actress, she has taken a dual-track path, veering between such smaller indie efforts as Miguel Arteta's "The Good Girl" and Nicole Holofcener's "Friends With Money" and glossier studio fare.

Said another producer who has worked with her: "There are some actors like Angelina Jolie, if they want to do the movie, then you make the movie. Aniston is not the kind of star that drives movies getting made. She's the kind of star that gets the movie made if you want to make it anyway. If she says, 'I want to do a script,' people are going to say: 'How do you sell it? What's the budget? Who's the co-star?' She's part of a package within a package."

The photogenic Aniston might lend herself to poster art -- and attracts publicity in the form of those ever-present magazine covers -- but she can't open a film by herself. Her boxoffice track record has more to do with the power of her various male co-stars than anything else.

"Bruce Almighty," which grossed $243 million domestically in 2003, was by far her biggest hit, but that movie was sold as a wacky Jim Carrey comedy with Aniston tagging along as Carrey's fiancee.

She also broke the $100 million mark appearing with Vince Vaughn in "Break-Up," a sort of anti-romantic comedy, and by sharing the screen with Owen Wilson and a lovable dog in "Marley."

But teaming with such lesser lights as Steve Zahn in last year's "Management," which received only a token release, and Aaron Eckhart in September's "Love Happens," Aniston hasn't been able to drag movies over the finish line by herself. In fact, "Love" opened to the same sort of weekend that greeted "Switch": $8 million.

"On her own, she's not strong enough," one of the producers said. "She's like the cleanup hitter, but you need the rest of the team."

"Switch" was problematic because it isn't a typical rom-com; its father-son plot is as prominent as its romantic resolution. The campaign, in which Aniston had a hand, tried to suggest a bit of an edge instead of just the usual sunny cliches.

The movie opened Friday in 2,012 theaters, one of the lowest screen counts among the weekend's slew of new releases. It had the third-highest per-screen average among the top 10 but placed seventh in a generally lackluster field.

Co-star Bateman earned good reviews in his first major star turn, but that didn't seem to count at the boxoffice.

"Bateman really is the main character, but the movie was judged as a Jennifer Aniston vehicle," one of her admirers said. "Given that, I think it was very generous of her to promote the movie the way she did, especially because people are so fixated about her, which is both a good thing and a bad thing."