The body-switching comedy is a silly concept which is why it’s been resigned to family films. Two people who don’t understand each other’s lives switch bodies through magical means and are given new appreciation for what the other does. The Change-Up turns that concept on its head by re-setting it into a raunchy, gross-out R-rated film and making the characters look inward at to what they’re missing in their own lives rather than appreciating the person whose form they’ve taken. The result is a film that’s painfully funny, quickly forgettable, and a little bit mean.
Dave (Jason Bateman) is a workaholic who is about to make partner in his law firm and isn’t spending enough time with his kids and his hot wife Jamie (Leslie Mann). His life-long friend Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) is a man-child who can’t go more than ten seconds without uttering something foul-mouthed and/or outrageously offensive. The two have been growing apart and go for a guy’s night out where they each voice their envy for the other’s life. They piss in a magic fountain and wake up in the other’s body. All of the appointments set up in the first 15 minutes (The big presentation! My Tuesday night fuck-fest!) along with the personal problems (My marriage has grown cold! I don’t like my dad!) must then be handled as the two try to track down the magic fountain.
When The Change-Up makes delivering laughs its single-minded focus, it works. It’s the it goes for the biggest gross-out gags of the year and it knows that child endangerment is always good for a chuckle. The film’s real gift is unleashing Jason Bateman. Too often cast as the straight man, Bateman’s small roles in Smokin Aces and State of Play have shown what he can do when given the chance to go crazy with a character and he finally gets his chance with The Change-Up. It’s not surprising that Bateman could play such a vulgar character but it’s delightful to see him to do it so well. The trade-off is that Reynolds has to play the more subdued, sarcastic character and he does a fine job with it, but he’s Mr. Nice Guy and the movie can’t find many laughs for him nor can the movie find much to do with his character.
Mitch has a clear arc: A guy who has never truly committed himself to anything has to man-up and show his father (played by Alan Arkin and the character is in no way a jerk so it’s hard to understand why Mitch hates him so much) and Dave that he can be the best fake lawyer and fake father of all time. Dave, on the other hand, just wants a vacation from the stresses of married life and fatherhood. The possibility of sleeping with his hot co-worker Sabrina (Olivia Wilde) is also in the cards, but since Dave constantly professes his love for his family, we all know he’s not going to boink Sabrina and all of the humor from those scenes don’t come from the jokes but from Reynolds’ delivery.
It’s in trying to find the drama where The Change-Up falls out of its comfort zone and shifts that discomfort on to the audience. There’s a second film happening inside of The Change-Up and it stars Leslie Mann as an incredibly unhappy woman who is truly suffering. Mann’s terrific and you’ll care more about her character than anyone else in the film. But while it’s okay for Mitch and Dave to be absolute jerks to each other (that’s how us dudes role, apparently), the movie can be brutal towards Jamie like one point where, after she has some explosive diarrhea and then comes to bed, Mitch chastises her for coming in “guns hot” and tells her that she’s not attractive to him. Later on Jamie pours her heart out to Dave (he’s inside Mitch’s body) and it’s equally heart-wrenching and Reynolds and Mann play it like a straight drama.
The majority of mainstream comedies pause for these moments of character development and emotional drama, but The Change-Up‘s swing into these moments takes the meanness and crassness of the comedy and resets it into a place where you suddenly don’t feel as good about laughing as you once did. It’s one thing to chastise these characters for their behavior, but it’s another to chastise the audience for laughing at their antics.
David Dobkin, screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, and Bateman and Reynolds (who were given the room to play around with their own dialogue) know their comedy when it comes to grossing out the audience and providing some brilliantly filthy dialogue. They’ve also got top-notch actors with Bateman, Reynolds, and Mann. But when the movie decides that the body-switching concept that was too stupid to take seriously in the first place must now yield honest emotions and character drama, it leaves the humor behind and then The Change-Up has to struggle to get us back to a place where we can laugh at a naked Jason Bateman charging into a room and raving about his taint.