[5 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You can tell where a movie intends to go when, within the first five minutes of its (overlong) run time, it decides to cover one of its leads - Jason Bateman - with a healthy dose of diaper pudding. That’s right, one half of our hapless heroes in the new film The Change-Up is an overstressed parent in possession of a precocious, needy pre-teen daughter and twins, one of which is very good at hurling its liquidy feces directly into daddy’s gapping mouth. In the ‘50s, comic Soupy Sales was known for the creaky if still funny pie in the face gag. In 2011, the R-rated comedy has decided that - Divine and a dog aside - no laugher is complete with a substantial splash of poop to the mug.
Right off the bat, this extended skit taken to ridiculously schmaltzy levels is prepared to go as far as possible to pile on the giggles. By the time karma corrects its unexplainable personality replacement, we’ll be privy to a naked plastic surgery disaster, a full frontal pregnant woman, and more of co-star Leslie Mann that even her husband Judd Apatow has seen in recent years. Like the aforementioned ‘auteur’, this movie wants to push the boundaries of acceptability and taste. However, instead of using a constant stream of dick jokes and dangling onscreen displays of same, The Change-Up chooses to play Porky’s. Yes, we’re back to overtly ogling the females of society, and this movie makes no PC bones about it.
Oh, and did we mention that this is a “reinvention” of the body switch genre that reached its zenith three decades ago. From Tom Hanks Oscar-nominated turn in Big to lesser examples such as Like Father, Like Son and 18 Again, the notion of people replacing their own identity with that of someone else usually offers a greater dichotomy than responsible vs. reckless. The yin to Bateman’s Dave Lockwood and his dung mugged yang is out of work slack-tor Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds). Slick, stoned, and a savant with the ladies, his only major concern is making sure his groin is well shaved and his father (an awkward and out of place Alan Arkin) is embarrassed by his own son’s lack of legitimacy,
The big problem here is that overachieving Dave is jealous of Mitch’s do no/anything, sleep with anyone existence. On the opposite end of the unbelievability spectrum, there’s a bit of visa versa envy as well. One night, the guys get hammered and head to a local Atlanta fountain to take a piss. One misguided wish later and the dudes have switched. The irresponsible Mitch is now the married family man, nagged by the slightly shrewish Jamie Lockwood (Mann) to do all the things her henpecked hubby did. Similarly, Dave is now a directionless schlub, forced to do sleazy ‘lorno’ (light porno) while maintaining his pal’s Tuesday night booty call with an aggressive lover. Then, to make matters extend beyond 90 minutes, the latter is supposed to seal a multimillion dollar merger for his law firm, while the former can’t find a focus while at odds with his judgmental father. Brother.
All lifestyle resentment aside, it’s the scatology that signals where director David Dobkin’s (Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights) intends to mine most of his laughs - and just in case you need further proof of the toilet humor bent, Hangover scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore show up to give the actors an entire Navy’s worth of seadog curses. As with the equally awful Smurfs, this is a movie where the F-word becomes a grammatical chameleon. It’s noun, verb, adjective, adverb, declaration, exclamation, and when pragmatic push comes to shove, a proper name. Add in a level of female objectification that would make Carl Brutananadilewski blush, a subplot involving a multinational business deal, and yet another wasted performance by a plucky Olivia Wilde, and you’ve got what passes for R-rated raunch in these days of bridesmaids, bad teachers, and horrible bosses.
The lingering issue with The Change-Up is that we never really ‘get’ why Mitch is such a loser. Like many in the movies, he seems to be capable of caring for his hedonistic needs without any real visible means of support. He does things that proper society would sue over and yet ends up being championed for his complete and utter lack of validity. Dave, on the other hand, is viewed as a man so focused on being a good ‘X’ - provider, husband, father, member of country club set - that he’s somehow equally unappealing. The narrative gives him a minor roaming eye (Wilde is the beneficiary of his weak-willed wishes) but that’s it. And so the set-up here consists of a man who many would find foul, changing situations with every mother-in-law’s dream. Quite the premise for bold, bawdy wit.
But it’s worse than that. Instead of soaring, instead of trying to climb the ladder of bad taste higher and higher, The Change-Up forgoes much of the filth to try for a last minute pluck at the heartstrings. When Dave discovers how unhappy his wife really is (though we see none of this prior to the revelation), it’s supposed to spawn a pragmatic reconsideration. Similarly, when Mitch learns that most of the civilized world believes he’s a certified screw-up, his jaded epiphany is paramount to a cute puppy begging for a treat. He gets it - now love him. Granted, meaning is not a reason for seeing a movie like this, but instead of going for straight (or even more outrageous) laughs, Dobkin and his hired writing duo want it all. As a result, everything - the comedy and the pathos - underachieve.
As for the acting, no one will confuse what Bateman and Reynolds do as similar to how Nicolas Cage and John Travolta handled a like-minded situation in John Woo’s underrated actioner, Face/Off. They aren’t really playing different people, just mediocre impressions of each other. Mann gets marks for overcoming the need for nudity to be a believably exhausted wife, and Wilde once again has to play statuesque when she should be taken seriously as a rebel made good girl. Naturally, none of this matters when you’ve got grown men urinating in front of a group of grade school children, or a merger negotiation alive with racist remarks. The Change-Up wants to have its crudeness cake and force you to eat it as well. Just like a face full of pre-ingested infant mousse, however, the results are just nauseating.