Monday, August 8, 2011



- I have to say ... I am a little surprised at some of the reviews for The Change-Up. So much time is spent on over-analyzing the movie's absurd premise and boundary-pushing R-rated humor, that comparitively little time has been spent on the most important question of all: is the movie funny? The value of a comedy ultimately boils down to that question, but it's one that critics tend to hate because it's such a subjective thing. It's why absurdist comedy is almost always underrated by critics - if there's not some sort of social, political, or cultural satire at the heart of a film or TV show, critics don't usually have the correct vocabulary to evaluate it. I'm not saying that The Change-Up is a comedy classic or anything, but I'm saying this: no matter what you think of the movie in theory, or on paper, well ... that only has so much weight at the end of the day. For me, I went into the film as a skeptic. The premise seemed tired and cliched, the lead actors are both overexposed at the moment, and the fact that this was from the guys who brought us "The Wedding Crashers" didn't exactly inspire confidence. Here's the thing though: the movie wasn't life-changing, but the script was clever and at times wickedly funny. Looking at this film in comparison to other Summer '11 comedies - Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, The Hangover 2 - I think it compares pretty favorably.

Here's the thing about The Change-Up ... if it took itself at all seriously, it would be a pretty obnoxious movie, no question. But I think the movie establishes pretty quickly that it's just going to go for broke, and use its ridiculous premise as a means to get as crazy, vulgar, and stupid as it possibly can. One of my personal pet peeves is movies that seem to have that disconnect where they seem to *think* their characters are likable, even though they are essentially d-bags (cough*The Hangover* cough). But The Change-Up basically comes out of the gate and says "yep, these two guys are complete assholes, now let's have some fun with that."

And both Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds are pretty game to degrade themselves and act like juvenile idiots in the name of getting a laugh. Both are quite good in the movie, and if not for their likability as comedic actors, the movie would probably really struggle to work as well as it does. I will say - after seeing Horrible Bosses, where Bateman's character supposedly grew up with Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, it was jarring to again see him cast as a childhood chum of an actor clearly a decade or more his junior. That said, the two actors have an excellent chemistry. Not only do they do a pretty good job of acting like the other, once the film's body-swapping premise fully kicks in, but some of the movie's funniest moments come from the small bits of back-and-forth dialogue between them.

Now, I give all this praise simply because I was a bit shocked at all of the extreme negativity directed towards the film. I see D-level grades, and I think that the film's script is too sharp, and its lead actors too good, to rate quite so low. Still, I will admit that the movie has some fundamental issues. Chiefly, I think where THE CHANGE-UP really goes off the rails a bit is with the tone. It's just way too all-over-the-place. The problem is that much of the movie is completely wacky and absurd, and yet at times it becomes way too sincere. All that stuff I said above about the movie not taking itself seriously? There are random scenes where all that gets thrown out the window, and the film stops feeling subversive and random and starts feeling like a sitcom episode. It's funny though, because, for example, the final act of the film is so melodramatic that it almost comes back to being hilarious. It's weird ... it feels like the film is being pulled in two directions. Part of it wants to be over-the-top and broad, like an Anchorman, and part of it is trying to be more standard-issue comedy. But the premise itself is broad and absurd - it doesn't lend itself to any sort of seriousness or sincerity at all. And yet, sometimes the movie sheds any layer of self-aware irony, blasts big, dramatic music, and seems to actually want us to feel sad or emotionally-invested in its characters. Like I said, very tonally uneven. It's the rare piece of comedy that can balance wackiness and absurdity with actual pathos (The Simpsons and Futurama come to mind ... and not many others). And yeah, in this case, it's one of those things where you cant quite be sure what movie you're watching from scene to scene.

I also think the movie crosses a couple of lines here and there. It relies too much on visual gross-out gags, for one. I have no problem with crude humor, and there is some very funny crude humor in the film. But just showing me (literally) crap for the sake of shock-value isn't really good comedy, it's just laziness. The movie has a few too many pure shock-value gags than were needed, and too many are simply of the "ugh, gross!" variety as opposed to actually being funny. I know that there's also a lot of talk about the movie's relatively poor handling of its female characters. I think it again ties back to an overreliance on lazy gags as opposed to any true sort of misogyny in the screenplay. At the same time, there is something a little off when the movie shows off a naked Leslie Mann (albeit via a fake / CGI'd body), and yet also wants us to be revulsed by her when she has has a bad stomach. It's all in the details though, you know? You could have had a gag where Reynolds-in-Bateman's-body is grossed-out, but then Mann reprimands him and calls out all the gross things that she has to put up with. Instead, she just sort of becomes sad at the insult and takes it. It's a little moment that's generated a lot of discussion / controversy, and I do agree that the movie only sparingly lets Mann's character have a brain or a spine. Given that Mann comes off as a very smart, strong woman in real life and on-screen, it's jarring and feels off. At the same time, Olivia Wilde's character is really more of a plot device than an actual character. Again, I do think it's a bit lazy to have her character's personality just sort of exist to serve the script.

As it stands, The Change-Up is one of those movies that is probably way better in execution than it has any right to be on paper. It helps that the cast is filled with talented people who probably help to elevate the film as a whole. Bateman, Reynolds, Mann - along with supporting players like Alan Arkin (way too good for this, to be honest) and Gregory Itzin - all make the most of the material. And really, what makes the movie is that it's got several really great gags and a number of laugh-out-loud moments. Bad Teacher had a couple. Horrible Bosses had one or two. This one kept me laughing. At the same time, I recognize that on a stuctural / conceptual level, the movie is flawed. Ideally, I want to have my cake and eat it too. But in this case, I'll make the case that there is, indeed, some cake.

My Grade: B

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