Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2011

You got your Reynolds in my Bateman!

'The Change-Up' is a body-switch comedy . . . which is where its comedic ideas begin, and end

The Change-Up
Universal Pictures
Director: David Dobkin
Screenplay: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Starring: Jason Bateman, Ryan Reynolds, Leslie Mann, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, Sydney Rouviere and Gregory Itzin
Rated R / 1 hour, 52 minutes
(out of four)

Sensitive viewers will be offended by The Change-Up, denouncing it on grounds of profanity, sexism and obscenity, and for indulging in the fine arts of anatomical and scatalogical humor without remorse.

I am not a sensitive viewer. A comedy has one minimum requirement, and that is to be funny. But for the occasional exception, there is only one way for a film like this to be truly offensive, and that is if it is not funny. So, yes, I suppose I could count myself as one of those offended by The Change-Up. But only, I insist, for the most honorable of reasons.

The Change-Up is an example of Hollywood feeding its tried-and-true demographics a little too hard and a little too often. A few years back, the raunchy R-rated comedy began something of a renaissance, with the industry quickly capitalizing on what became one of its most reliable genres - right up there with sugary rom-coms and superhero flicks.

And in the years since then, we've gotten a remarkable number of quality entries - Knocked Up, Borat, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Pineapple Express, Superbad, The Hangover, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Wedding Crashers, Bridesmaids, Role Models and I Love You, Man among them.

(Hot Tub Time Machine has its fervent admirers. I am not one of them. So we'll just leave that one out of it for now.)

Yes, I know, there were hit R-rated sex comedies in the years just before this recent wave - the American Pie series, There's Something About Mary, etc. But they really took off in 2005 with the dual success of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Wedding Crashers. Anyway - now, it seems, we've reached a period of diminishing returns. What was impressive about that early post-2005 group is how many of those movies were genuinely good.

But over the last year or so, other than Bridesmaids, have any of the others really made a dent? Maybe it became such a bankable market that quality control (a vague concept, I know) simply slipped. We've gotten movies that took solid concepts and dropped the ball (Horrible Bosses, 30 Minutes or Less, Bad Teacher) and a string of uninspired remakes/sequels/spinoffs/knock-offs (take your pick; select all that apply) like Get Him to the Greek, Due Date and The Hangover Part II.

And now The Change-Up, which wastes almost all of the talent of its cast and concept. OK OK, I know, "concept" might be a bit too strong a word - the "body switch" template is about as simple as it gets. But hey, there's still fertile ground for comedy there. And this movie simply fails to . . . well, I was going to say "harvest it," but that's just a bad joke. (That's what you do with fertile ground, right? Harvest it? Whatever, I'm not a farmer.) So we'll just say it doesn't take advantage.

We start with an old-hat dynamic. There's career-driven family man Dave (Jason Bateman), trying to make partner at his law firm while struggling to make time for his wife (Leslie Mann) and kids. His best friend is Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), a bachelor with no worries, no real job, no responsibilities, an apartment that looks like a dorm room, constant sex, and, naturally, a crippling desire to gain his father's acceptance. The father, needless to say, is played by Alan Arkin.

You know the drill - they wish for each other's lives, lightning strikes, they switch bodies, chaos ensues. OK then. What I think too many people have been focusing on is the unoriginality of the premise itself. But I can live with the premise. It's merely the setup, and you can hang all kinds of comedic ideas, gags and setpieces upon it. The problem with The Change-Up is that it never figures out how to get the most out of the scenario.

More to the point, it never figures out what it can do, because it's too busy marching inexorably toward the most obvious conclusions - the guys screwing up one another's lives, then enjoying their new lives, then facing a crisis, and finally learning a little bit about each other . . . and themselves. It's all as nice and neat as it should be, I suppose, but comedically, there's no meat on them bones. It's all just shells of ideas - the kinds of ideas that generally don't make the cut. Baby shoots a turd on Dad's face. Baby throws butcher knife at Mitch-as-Dave's head. Dave-as-Mitch has an awkward sexual encounter (or two). Mitch-as-Dave accidentally throws around inappropriate innuendo in the office.

And the thing is, these are the film's best ideas. I found myself pondering the comedic opportunities it missed rather than enjoying the few it landed. (I also found myself wondering whose breasts had been digitally added to Leslie Mann's body - a special effect that may, I suppose, fool a novice, but which will be all too conspicuous for any breast enthusiast. But I digress.)

What is most apparent, once the body-switching takes place, is that Bateman's Reynolds is way better than Reynolds' Bateman. When Mitch becomes Dave, Bateman's entire countenance changes - body language, tone of voice, attitude, everything. But when Dave becomes Mitch, Reynolds basically just plays the same character toned down about 10 percent. It's no secret that Bateman is a better actor than Reynolds, but having the two play both themselves and each other - and having Bateman do a better job at both of them - makes it crystal clear.

Then again, that talent imbalance is hardly the worst of the film's problems. I'm sure Reynolds would have made an acceptable second lead if The Change-Up had simply been better conceived in the first place.

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