After 1976’s Freaky Friday, Hollywood began spitting out body-swap comedies so regularly that the routine of horrified characters feeling themselves up in their suddenly older, younger or differently gendered bodies has practically become an annual event. Everyone from Steve Martin to Lindsay Lohan has done it. While contributing nothing to the cause of creativity, these movies hit a happy nerve: dependably slapstick and guaranteed to reinforce the message that it wouldn’t hurt to be either more or less whimsical, that being yourself is a good thing.
The Change-Up, from Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and written by The Hangover scribes Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, is raucous and entertaining but unexciting. It distinguishes itself from the others by not particularly distinguished means: a headlong rush to an R rating. The two disparate characters swapping places are old friends Dave (played by Jason Bateman) and Mitch (Ryan Reynolds). Mitch is an idiot who swears incessantly; every other word out of his mouth begins with f. (No one swears as gratuitously as Mitch unless he or she has a disorder.) The movie takes what is a fleeting pleasure — seeing the typically straitlaced Bateman use that word even around children — and makes it a lingering (and boring) theme.
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Mitch is a lot like Phil, Bradley Cooper’s Hangover character, but without the respectable job, wife and kids. Successful Dave has those. He’s a lawyer on the brink of a deal that could make him partner. He’s married to Jamie (Knocked Up‘s Leslie Mann) and is father to a young daughter (Sydney Rouviere) and adorable baby twins. Mitch has aspirations to be an actor with a swinging sex life, but he’s a quitter, while Dave is a workaholic who never learned to embrace quitting time.
There are some gross but comically effective reveals, and the movie’s fish-out-of-water scenes are horrible and funny at the same time. Reynolds has his moments — the lecture he delivers (as Dave) on the rules of marriage is his shining moment. But in part because Bateman is the stronger comedian, and in part because Mitch’s single life is surprisingly dull, the sequences at Dave’s house have more energy. Watching Bateman sling around a pair of insanely cute babies like bags of flour is frivolous good fun.
Frivolity is the point. No one is supposed to sweat the details of The Change-Up, like how or why Mitch and Dave swapped places (they expressed envy of each other’s lives while peeing in a fountain together). It’s the reactions that matter, like Mitch/Dave’s disgust when he wakes up to the sight of Jamie breastfeeding in bed. (Mann’s prosthetics may develop their own fan base.) Mitch and Dave expect that as soon as they can replicate the circumstances of the switch, everything will go back to normal. Where do they get that confidence? Safe to say from the movies. “This is freaky,” Mitch/Dave says in a tossed-off reference to the mother of the genre. Forget foul language and topless women: if a filmmaker really wanted to radicalize the body-swap movie, one swapper would end up in a mental ward while the other spent all his money and slept with his wife.
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But within The Change-Up‘s predictable parameters, there’s a kernel of truth about the worn-out friendship at its center. If Mitch and Dave were women, they’d be called frenemies. They stick together out of habit, even though Mitch thinks Dave is a tool and Dave thinks Mitch is a jerk. Neither meant his pronouncement at the fountain. “I was just trying to be nice,” Dave says. Mitch suspects that his old friend is “embarrassed of” him. The movie would have been darker, nastier — and stronger — if they’d taken the opportunity to toy with each other’s lives a bit more.
Case in point: what are the chances Dave will use Mitch’s waxed, muscular body to finally to sleep with Sabrina (Olivia Wilde), the colleague he’s been lusting after? Bateman as Mitch is all for it, explaining that it wouldn’t be infidelity because Dave would be using Mitch’s body — “I’ve got your [penis] right here in my pants.” Still, I sat through The Change-Up wishing that the characters would take more advantage of their opportunities. Movies like this and the early-2011 release Hall Pass put the boobs right in front of the guys (and the audience) and then show them backing away. All this titillation followed by the triumph of dutiful family values wears on you. The Change-Up tries so hard to be scandalous that it’s a shame it doesn’t do more to change up the formula.