[5 August 2011]
There are certain high concepts that should be retired by Hollywood. Like body-swapping comedies.
Movies have gone to this well over and over. It can be fun to think about two people who are complete opposites being forced to live in each other’s shoes, even if the conflict and moral lesson are obvious. Among the first treatments was Freaky Friday, where a bickering mother and daughter swapped bodies. Since then, a new body-swapping comedy has emerged every few years. Men switch with women. People with their dogs. Fathers with sons. Old people with young people. Husbands and wives. Nerds and jocks. Donkeys and cats (see Shrek the Third). The variations on this theme seem infinite.
This is not to say the formula can’t be done well or the comedy can’t be funny (Being John Malkovich, for example, considers metaphysical consequences). But the repetition can also be wearying. Two characters are unsatisfied with their current lives. They admit it out loud, which leads to a mystical event that results in their consciousnesses swapping bodies. They freak out. First attempts to live as the other person fail miserably. But they start to appreciate exactly the characteristics of the other person that they used to hate. And they learn to better understand their own flaws from the other person’s perspective. Finally, they both become better people through the experience and realize that they really just want to be themselves. The same mystical delivery system returns them to their own bodies, where miraculously their previous situations are better than ever.
The Change-Up follows all these well-worn steps. A driven corporate lawyer and family man, Dave (Jason Bateman), swaps bodies with his childhood friend, slacker bachelor Mitch (Ryan Reynolds). You can guess how their story unfolds.
It begins with a night of drinking, freeing up Dave and Mitch enough to declare they each other’s lives. In a way that is ridiculous even by the lax standards of this genre, the switch happens when they voice their desire out loud while taking a leak into a fountain at the same time. Really. You can almost hear Beavis and Butthead chuckling—heh heh, they were peeing.
From here, the movies’ series of jokes rolls out exactly according to the requirements of the genre. Mitch is really bad at taking care of Dave’s kids, which leads to a scene with babies and knives featuring some of the most poorly rendered CGI in recent memory. Dave is really horrified by Mitch’s sex life, which leads to several R-rated scenes.
It’s in these scenes that The Change-Up is unlike most other body-switch movies, which tend to aim at “family” audiences. In riding the wave of recent successful hard-R comedies, however, The Change-Up is obligated to fulfill another set of requirements, namely, at least three raunchy set pieces that have little or nothing to do with the characters or the plot, but are uncomfortable and sexual enough to force a guilty chuckle from the audience. Thus the surprises Dave finds via living out Mitch’s sex life, involving an aging porn star, a horny pregnant woman, and the most pervasive comedy crutch in recent years, explosive diarrhea.
This effort to mix and match conventions, though, only reinforces the film’s lack of originality. Alas, The Change-Up isn’t horrendous enough to kill the body-swapping movie. By all rights, that honor should have gone to The Hot Chick, which set the ick-factor bar by swapping Rob Schneider with a high school girl. In fact, after it gets over the R-rated business during its the first hour, The Change-Up is quite traditional, even borderline heartwarming. Marriage and monogamy are affirmed, and friendship proves to be the strongest force of all. Though pissing in a fountain comes in a close second.