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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The Change-Up (2011)

Director: David Dobkin
Starring: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds
Domestic Gross: $37,081,475

Call it a case of counting your chickens before they're hatched. A week before the release of The Change-Up, the film was plugged in a Hollywood Reporter article about the rise and dominance of R-rated comedies, mentioned in the same breath as Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses and Bridesmaids, all hits in the summer of 2011. Noting the recent trend of films with "off-color language and raunchy sensibilities," the writer goes on to call R-rated comedies "Hollywood's darling" and ends with the assertion: "The best part for Hollywood is that the barrage isn't over: Another R-rated comedy, the Jason-Bateman-Ryan Reynolds starrer The Change Up, is coming from Universal on Aug. 5." Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 but it's difficult to understand how a film as charmless and lacking in virtue as The Change-Up could ever be considered alongside those other films (and I say that as someone who didn't even like Horrible Bosses), and easy to understand how it became an abject failure both in terms of box office and critical reception. This is, after all, a film that begins with an infant projectile defecating into Bateman's open mouth and then somehow finds a way to keep lowering the bar from there.

Bateman and Reynolds star as lifelong friends Dave and Mitch. The former (played by Bateman) is a lawyer and family man struggling to keep all his plates spinning, while the latter (Reynolds) is an actor waiting for his big break and enjoying a life of casual sex with a string of women. Uptight Dave has more or less outgrown his friendship with freewheeling Mitch, but is guilted into having a boys night out with him during which they get drunk and later pee in the same fountain while each states that he wished he had the other's life. Just then a strange power outage briefly immerses the neighborhood around them in darkness and the next morning they wake up having switched bodies. Realizing that the switch has something to do with the fountain, they rush back to it in order to correct the situation only to discover that the fountain has been removed and that the guy who would know exactly where it's being taken is currently on holiday. Until they're able to find the new location of the fountain, they agree to keep up appearances as each other, though they do make a futile attempt to tell Dave's wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), what has happened. The timing really couldn't be worse as Dave is in the process of closing a big deal that, if successful, will see him being made a partner at the firm, while Mitch is about to make his film debut in what he believes will be an important project (though as Dave/Mitch discovers to his horror when he shows up on set, it's actually a super low budget porno). On the bright side, Dave as Mitch has the opportunity to explore a relationship with Sabrina (Olivia Wilde), the junior lawyer that he has a crush on, and Mitch as Dave is able to gain some insight into his relationship with his father (Alan Arkin), who opens up to "Dave" in a way that he never could to his son. In fact, things begin going so well for each in the lives of the other that when they do find the statue, they decide to postpone their attempt to switch back so that they can enjoy the other's life just a little bit longer, only to discover in the end that the grass really isn't greener on the other side after all.

I'm not even sure where to begin describing what's wrong with this film, so I'm just going to start with its most egregious element, which is its treatment of women. The Change-Up has a view of women that can most generously be described as "extremely fucked up" even if you ignore the moment when Mitch as Dave advocates rape by comparing a business negotiation to the process of convincing a drunk girl who says she doesn't want to have sex that she actually does (I believe this is known as the "Blurred Lines" strategy). The most consistent joke in the film is that women's bodies are gross and that women are essentially worthless once they've done anything that could kill a dude's boner. Yet, even while declaring that these women are disgusting and unfuckable, the film still takes a moment to linger exploitatively on their bare breasts. Off the top of my head, I recall that this happens on at least three occasions (with Jamie, with the woman in the porno film, and with a woman who has a standing weekly sex date with Mitch). The only woman in the film who escapes this treatment is Sabrina, who is less a Manic Pixie Dream Girl and more the ultimate "girl who can hang," a woman who embraces all the things that are stereotypically considered "masculine" interests but does so without sacrificing her hotness. Sabrina is valued by the film because she can be an object of desire without requiring any form of compromise (or really anything at all) from its male protagonists. She doesn't demand anything from them, the only needs she has from them are those which, miraculously, complement their own, and she never questions them or needs them to explain themselves. She notices, after the switch, that "Dave" is acting strangely but if she ever notices following the switch back that Mitch, whom she started to date while he was really Dave, is behaving differently, she never mentions it.

Of course, there's not really any reason to think she would notice the difference because, and this is the fundamental problem with the film at a pure story level, there's not really much difference between Dave and Mitch. On a surface level they're as different as Goofus and Gallant, but once you strip away the things that are meant to signify personality without actually revealing anything (such as, for example, Dave's business suits or the fact that Mitch gleefully says nothing but inappropriate things), you're left with two blanks as the protagonists, each of whom could be lifted out of his own identity and placed in the other's with relative ease. This problem might have been avoided by casting different actors, ones whose screen personas were more markedly different or easily spoofable than those of Bateman and Reynolds. Most "body switch" movies go the route of having two characters of different generations or the opposite sex switch bodies because that's an easy way to attach a "fish out of water" vibe to an figure who should, by dint of their appearance, be in their element in a given situation. Movies where the two characters are essentially coming from the same perspective (in this case that of white, heterosexual, financially secure men) approach the premise from a more difficult angle because they're relying almost entirely the audience's expectation/experience of the actors (not the "characters" but the actual actors) to do the heavy lifting. The only movie I can think of where this worked was Face/Off and that's because Nicolas Cage and John Travolta had the benefit of getting to take turns doing the "full Cage." But what is the difference, really, between Bateman and Reynolds as actors? Both are pleasing and likeable in bland, nondescript ways, but is there anything about either of them that makes you say, "Oh, that is so Ryan Reynolds (or Jason Bateman)?" Both are fine actors but neither are big personalities with defining mannerisms or ways of being, which makes them the wrong combination for a film like this. You need one, or both, of the roles to be cast with an actor who has more of a schtick that can be riffed on in order to get this premise off the ground.

That said, even if it made casting changes to one or both roles, The Change-Up would still be an utterly terrible film. Its tone deafness is exemplified in the fact that, despite spending much of its running time being hateful towards women, the finale reveals that it believes itself to be a heartwarming story about two men who learn to appreciate the good things they have in their lives. Never mind that the problems in Dave's marriage to Jamie are never actually resolved (he's a devoted father but an absent husband who consistently finds excuses to deny Jamie's request that they spend one hour a week just talking to each other), never mind that whatever issues exist between Mitch and his father (which seem to come down to the father thinking Mitch is shiftless and devoid of any kind of ambition or work ethic, which... is accurate) are never actually resolved, never mind that Mitch and Dave essentially entered a tacit agreement to "share" a woman (Sabrina) without her knowledge, never mind that Dave used his sojourn into Mitch's body as an excuse to try a relationship with Sabrina without "technically" (whatever that means in this context) cheating on Jamie, never mind that during his time as Dave, Mitch says something unspeakably cruel to Jamie for which he never apologies or suffers any consequences. Yep, this is a feel good movie all right and I'm sure glad these two dillweeds ended up getting everything they wanted.

Even laying aside the unearned sappiness of the ending, the mistakes in casting, and the thematic ugliness, The Change-Up is a failure at the most basic level: it's not funny. It has all the foul language, raunchiness, and nudity one might expect from an R-rated comedy, but it doesn't actually turn any of that into anything remotely resembling a joke. The only good thing I can say about the film is that by being as terrible as it is, it can only make you appreciate the skill and finesse of the good movies of its kind.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Not only should it not have been a blockbuster, all copies should have been rounded up and buried with those E.T. Atari games in New Mexico


thevoid99 said...

One of the aspects film of the film that I found upsetting was that all of the female nudity of the film was CGI. That is just wrong.

Plus, since the film was shot in Atlanta as I live nearby in Smyrna, it looked awful. I wanted to throw up and I just hated every minute of that piece of shit film.

Norma Desmond said...

Yeah, I can't think of a single scene where this one was at all enjoyable.