Who knew that combining the tropes of the body swap movie and the conventions of the raunchy brom-com were what we needed as the final word in male-based comedy this year? I’m not so sure David Dobkin’s “The Change-Up” fulfills that conclusion, but it at least displays the potential for its mashed up concept. And, thankfully, it’s one of the least offensive. But even if it did display as much outright homophobic (as opposed to homoerotic) and misogynistic (as opposed to customarily sexist) ideas as plenty other films do this year, I might excuse it for an appropriateness of ventriloquism. Screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (both of “The Hangover”) could seem to have free will in saying terrible things through their characters’ mouths, as if they were magically transferred into their bodies and speaking through disguise.
“The Change-Up” consistently reminded me of the power of movies to work out contemplations of social behavior. Lately this dealing in the hypothetical over the realistic has been done very well in works involving the Duplasses, by which I mean the married couple of Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton. He starred in and consulted with filmmaker Lynn Shelton on “Humpday,” the movie that should have closed the book on bromance plots entirely with its curiosity about what would happen if two male buddies decided to experiment sexually with each other. He also produced his wife’s “The Freebie,” the better of recent movies involving characters with a “hall pass” from married life (and in case you forgot, a necessary film for all thirtysomethings).
In this new, highly R-rated comedy, buddies played by Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds — easily interchangeable for Duplass and Josh Leonard’s respective roles in “Humpday” — literally get to feel what it’s like to be inside each other (and even jerk each other off, to an extent), by way of body-swapping rather than intercourse. Much of it also feels quite akin to the Farrelly’s “Hall Pass,” which is the lesser version of the marriage-break concept of “The Freebie.” Not simply because “The Change-Up” was filmed in Atlanta (and is set there, unlike “Hall Pass”), the movie also plays with the similar question of what a guy might do with a little vacation from his husband status and responsibility. Instead of the wife-approved pass, he’s given a seemingly logical justification for having sex with others. It’s only cheating with the mind, he’s told, which is conceivably the same thing as fantasizing about someone else during masturbation.
There is a lot more going on in “The Change-Up” than I expected. Initially I figured it would basically just rehash all the same cliches of the subgenre while also humorously redoing specifically the classic “Vice Versa” model (which originated with an 1882 novel) of father and son swapping by making the “son” role another adult man, just one in arrested development. In context, that’s a fair if simplistic commentary on the juvenile man-boy thing. Why swap with a Fred Savage or Kirk Cameron when teenage boys are typically even more mature these days than characters played by the likes of Reynolds, Owen Wilson, Adam Sandler and numerous other actors? What we get instead is Capra-ish meets Farrelly-ish, the twofold male fantasy examination that comes with combining the sensibilities of “The Family Man” and “Old School.”
However, it’s still only a bit smarter than “Hall Pass” and only slightly better at mixing the raunch with the family comedy that the Farrelly brothers were aiming for. Tonally even “No Strings Attached” achieved a better mix of sweet and sour (and that reminds me: between “No Strings Attached” and “Friend with Benefits,” we still need a smarter indie version of the casual sex idea now, too, one with better follow-through). But part of what’s appreciable with “The Change-Up” is in the realization of just how exaggerated it is. In my list of body-swap movie tropes I include two items concerning the unrealistic portrayals of adults by child actors and children by adult actors. Such amplified caricature is in fact obligatory here for the statements it means to make about these two guys. Nobody should believe that anyone would be so oblivious to normal, acceptable clothing and behavior during an important business meeting as Reynolds-in-Bateman exhibits in one silly scene. Other moments play with old stereotypes like the husband forgetting his wedding anniversary and the bachelor with unreasonable incomprehension of childcare.
Worthwhile statement and commentary on the two sides of the masculinity coin are merely half-assed and half-hearted from Dobkin, Lucas and Moore, however, and I’d love to see where Shelton, Duplass and/or Aselton would go with the same situation played with here. Maybe it would be a lot more serious and harsh, less intently comedic, but that would be the value. Why hasn’t anyone done a really serious body swapping movie, anyway? There are certainly interesting things to be done with male/female swapping as well as male/male swapping, and if the Duplasses won’t go there, someone else really ought to.
“The Change-Up” is now playing nationwide.
Recommended If You Like: “Hall Pass”; “Wedding Crashers”; “Like Father Like Son”