The Change-Up (R)
As the latest in a long-established genre, The Change-Up is presumed to be a critical punching bag. Formula is, after all, our hated foe. We complain about all films that ride in the deep grooves carved out by all those that went before.
So you might suspect that when The Change-Up changes up the conventions of the "body swap" comedy, there'd be praise of its trail-blazing ways. And you'd be wrong.
Here's the ugly truth about genre formulas: They generally exist for good reason. While adhering to the formula is no guarantee of success, turning it sideways isn't inevitably a step in the right direction. Whatever entertainment there is in The Change-Up comes from its adherence to precedent; its disappointments rest on its misguided attempts to think outside the "body swap" box.
We know the drill: Two people (occasionally one) express a desire for a different kind of life, and paranormal means accommodate that wish. In this variation, buddies-since-grade-school Dave (Jason Bateman) and Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) express mutual envy over an evening of drinks. Dave is an over-achieving attorney with a wife (Leslie Mann) and kids; Mitch is an under-achieving stoner and wannabe actor who lives alone. After the men share a piss in a mystical fountain, Dave's mind wakes up in Mitch's body, and vice-versa.
Bateman and Reynolds are both sardonic comedic screen presences, and both get some solid material as they wreak havoc through one another's lives. But their similarities force us to confront Body Swap Comedy Law No. 1: Make the switch noticeable.
The common flip-flops of parent/kid (Freaky Friday, Vice Versa), young/old (Dream a Little Dream, 18 Again!) and male/female (The Hot Chick, All of Me) are all set-ups that allow actors room to play with very different personalities. There's just not all that much difference between Bateman freaking out and swearing, and Reynolds freaking out and swearing.
Which brings us to BSCL No. 2: Let simple situations drive the comedy. It's weird enough that two people have traded consciousness; the fun comes from watching them confounded by what would be another person's everyday scenarios. So while it's a neat gag having inexperienced parent Mitch suggest that his daughter hit back at a ballet bully, there's only head-smacking when he leaves twin babies where they can play with kitchen knives and electrical outlets. And while it's funny watching family man Dave respond awkwardly to his first "first date" in decades, it's ridiculous watching him muddle his way through a "light porno" movie shoot.
Which instantly collides with BSCL No. 3: Don't work too "blue." There's a reason most previous incarnations on this theme have been family-friendly: The concept is a fundamentally conservative one that reminds us that, whatever its troubles, our lives are basically good the way they are. The thematic twist here isn't all that radical, but the content from Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and The Hangover screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore definitely is. Even when the crudeness is hilarious, it feels like an awkward fit with the sentimentality.
It's telling that most of the film's best moments don't involve either of the two leads at all, but rather Mann's terrific bits as Dave's frustrated wife. Mann knows how to get the most out of playing by the genre's rules, while The Change-Up makes the same mistake as most transgressors with an adolescent sense of humor: thinking that breaking laws is inherently cool.