When it comes to fatherhood, how many kids are too many? Reasonable types might say you should draw the line at eight — maybe 10? Twelve?
How about 533?
In the French-Canadian comedy Starbuck, that's the number of kids sired by 42-year-old David Wozniak (Patrick Huard) who, in his youth, picked up extra cash, and plenty of it, by masturbating into a little cup at the local sperm bank.
That wouldn't be a problem, necessarily, except that 142 of those tadpoles, now full-fledged grown-ups in their late teens and 20s, are trying to force the fertility clinic to reveal the identity of their biological father, who registered himself under the code name "Starbuck."
The news hits just as the perennially irresponsible David — who also happens to be heavily, dangerously in debt — learns that his girlfriend, Valerie (Julie Le Breton), is pregnant. Having decided David just isn't dad material — and not knowing anything about the seed he's already scattered throughout the land — she kicks him to the curb, vowing to raise the child on her own.
That's a marvelous premise for a comedy, and Starbuck mines it for gentle laughs, as opposed to the cheap kind. Director Ken Scott, who also cowrote the script with Martin Petit, has fashioned a story that starts out low-key and gradually builds in its emotional expansiveness.
Having been provided with the names and profiles of the kids who are hoping to learn his identity, David surreptitiously sets out to learn more about them. That probably counts as stalking, but his intentions are good, and he discovers that the kids he's fathered are so varied that they're practically a mini-society by themselves. They include supermarket workers, cafe waiters moonlighting as actors, drunkards, subway buskers and manicurists.
Occasionally, as when David realizes that one of his daughters has a heroin problem, he feels moved to step forward and help without revealing his identity; in other cases, he simply feels a certain joy in getting to know these strangers who are just a little like him. (Though very few of them actually resemble him.)
David's initial dismay at having launched so many lives turns into elation, temporarily distracting him from his debt problems and gradually preparing him for a more involved kind of fatherhood. Huard doesn't overplay the big transformation, and his performance may be the key to the movie's effectiveness. (The picture is being remade in Hollywood under the title The Delivery Man, starring Vince Vaughn.)
David is a guy hoping to sprint through middle age: He still plays football — the European kind — regularly, but you can sense the soft thickening of his middle beneath that track suit. He shaves only intermittently, and the thick patches of gray in his beard make him look both slightly distinguished and a little tired.
But Huard's David is also a man who's still capable of surprise, and of change — even his rather dull job, as a delivery man for his family's butcher business, ends up providing a solution to one of his chief problems.
There are certain plot points in Starbuck, it's true, that either don't make much sense or are simply underexplained. But the picture is so breezily warm, without being too insistently ingratiating, that those flaws don't matter much.
How many kids are too many? The Monty Python guys once sang, ironically, that every sperm is sacred. In Starbuck, charmingly enough, it's actually sort of true.