Review: ‘Change-Up’ wastes talented cast, makes Reynolds and Bateman too slimy

There was an episode of “The Sarah Silverman Program” in their final season where the large gay couple played by Brian Posehn and Steve Agee switched bodies when they both touched a Chinese dragon phone at the same time.  It was exactly as ludicrous as that sounds, and the entire episode was a very knowing riff on this entire weird subgenere of comedy.  There have been countless variations on this basic formula, so doing it today requires something different, some new perspective or insight or metaphorical journey that the body switch can illustrate.  The good news is that finally, date rapists and people who think Tucker Max is too “old-fashioned” have their very own “Freaky Friday.”

It’s a shame because the bare bones of the premise is fine, exploring the perceptions of married and single life from the other side of the fence.  You can absolutely do the smart version of this, but instead, this is the urgently dirty version, and it’s too focused on shocking to do much else.  Here, when the film reaches for heart, it feels false.  It makes for a really uneven experience, a misfire of tone, and it commits the cardinal sin for me of being frantic instead of funny.

Both Dave Lockwood (Jason Bateman) and Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds) are awful people in the film, and neither one of them seems to genuine change for the better as a result of the events in the film.  They’re still sort of awful at the end, and they’re awful in the middle, and they certainly start awful.  They’re just no fun to root for or invest in, and I feel bad for the people in their lives.  I don’t really see redemption as something either of these guys is interested in or even capable of.  Everything’s written at this aggressive pitch, and I don’t feel like it ever settles into anything like actual human behavior or even an exaggerated version of it.  People do things for plot reasons and things happen because it’s time for them to happen, not because anybody earns anything.

The one performer who I think really comes off well here is Leslie Mann as Jamie Lockwood, Jason Bateman’s wife.  She’s carving out her own territory playing these women who have been worn thin and who speak some deep and awkward truths, and she’s very good at it.  Most of the early work she did in film didn’t really show off this raw nerve side of her personality, but her husband Judd Apatow has written some great stuff for her in films like “Knocked Up” and “Funny People” and his upcoming untitled comedy with Mann and Paul Rudd married again.  As with “Hall Pass,” the only sanity in the film is courtesy the women in the lives of these awful man-babies.  Mann’s character is in a different movie, and she’s working at a very different pitch than the rest of the thing’s being played.  It makes real something that depends on its unreality to be funny, and it just makes the film uncomfortable.

Even the way the thing happens is just perfunctory.  I can imagine the meeting where they thought, “What if we just make it completely absurd?” but as story mechanics go, it’s woefully thin.  They look for a fountain that gets moved around by the city, then finally find it.  That’s all the dramatic tension they wring out of the mechanics of body switching.  It’s so matter-of-fact that it feels indifferent.  If the film doesn’t even care, why should I?  The fact that the film builds to two guys peeing into a fountain in the middle of a crowded mall as the way to put things right will either make you guffaw or it’ll just leave you cold.  I thought the film was so ridiculous, so thrown away in that home stretch, that I didn’t care what happened or why.  Nothing in the film felt urgent enough for me to believe that it’s really affecting anything or anyone.  There’s also a visual gross-out level that the film engages for me, particularly with the CGI babies and the CGI nudity and the overall plastic reality of it.

This is a case where my sense of humor really, really does not synch up with that of director David Dobkin and writers Jon Lucas & Scott Moore.  I’ve spoken to people who found it all hilarious, but it just annoyed me after a certain point.  Even the presence of the great Alan Arkin as the disappointed father of Ryan Reynolds doesn’t really salvage things for me.  Olivia Wilde is fine with what she’s given, but she’s in one of the several different movies this seems to turn into along the way, and it never really feels of a piece with the rest of the movie.  I like Eric Edwards, and his work here has the same contemporary snap and feel of his other work, like “Knocked Up” or “The Break-Up,” but so much of what he’s shooting bugs me that it’s hard to admire what he does.   John Debney’s score is fine, considering what there is to work with.  It’s possible this sub-“Three’s Company” level farce will hit you harder in the funny bone than it did me, but I think as a film, it’s just sort of a grand mess, regardless of if it’s funny or not.

“The Change-Up” opens in theaters everywhere this Friday.