Body-switching comedy movies have become a big enough genre, in themselves, that these films no longer even need to try and tell the story of two people who switch bodies. That's what I took away from The Change-Up, the new movie starring Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman.
The Change-Up isn't all bad, though. Jason Bateman proves, once and for all, that he could read the phone book and it would be funny. There are some cute moments here and there. And to the extent that the movie sticks to being a character study of Bateman's character, it's got some cool bits. But it also proves the body-switching comedy genre has reached saggy old age. Spoilers ahead...
So in The Change-Up, Jason Bateman plays Dave, an attorney who shares childcare duties equally with his wife. And Ryan Reynolds plays Mitch, a slacker who has no responsibilities and sleeps around. The two of them have been friends since childhood, despite having nothing in common, and when they get together one night, they decide they envy each other's lives. They make this realization while peeing in a magic fountain, which grants their wish, so they wake up in each other's bodies.
Here's the central problem with The Change-Up: Traditionally, the body-switching movie requires two characters, who are both reasonably fleshed out, to change places. As a result, these two people learn to understand and appreciate each other. Mother changes place with daughter, father with son, man with woman, etc. But The Change-Up only has one character at the center of it: Jason Bateman's Dave.
Bateman's character is a cliche — the overachieving attorney who neglects his wife and five million adorable children, in his rush to "make partner." But over the course of the film, Dave gets surprisingly fleshed out, and we find out why he is who he is. We also spend a lot of time delving into Bateman's marriage, to Jaime (Leslie Mann), and why it's on the rocks. None of it is particularly original, but at least it's given some grounding. And Bateman puts so much into everything he does, using his ridiculously expressive face and his amazing comic timing, that the film can't help being about him even if the script weren't written that way.
Meanwhile, Ryan Reynolds' character is less than a cipher, and the movie never seems particularly interested in making him even one-dimensional. Reynolds is an underachieving stoner, who sits around and masturbates all day, while making pathetic attempts to become a professional actor. We're sort of vaguely told that Reynolds is a quitter, who can't stick with anything, and he's sort of the opposite of Bateman's character — but Reynolds also appears to be independently wealthy, so it's not like he's going to starve or anything.
There's none of this "the two characters learn to understand each other" nonsense. Bateman and Reynolds have a brief moment of wishing they had each other's lives — the family and career, versus the funemployed bachelor freedom. But it's always clear to the audience that Reynolds' character is a total loser, and over the course of the movie we just learn more and more about what a loser he is. Meanwhile, Bateman seems like a basically cool person, who works a little too hard — and at the end of the movie, we discover that this is true.
The biggest problem with this movie is that it keels over and dies whenever Jason Bateman is not on screen. Which is a lot.
This is not a knock against any of his costars, including Reynolds, Mann, or Olivia Wilde as the hot chick in Bateman's office. They're all fine actors, who do the best with what they're given — but only Bateman rises above the material. And the movie's only really interested in Bateman's character. The rest of the movie is just window-dressing for an investigation into how heroic and awesome Bateman's family man actually is. Lengthy, dull, inert window-dressing.
And it's odd that the movie goes out of its way to make Ryan Reynolds' life seem unappealing — he's a young good-looking guy who apparently has a trust fund. But the sequences of Bateman's character in Reynolds' body are all built around the dumbest possible gross-out humor — Reynolds has signed up to be in the world's most revolting soft-core porn movie, with an old woman with weird-looking fake tits. Also, Reynolds has set up a sex date with a pregnant woman, because he has a fetish or something, and having sex with pregnant women is gross. (The film gets pretty misogynistic in the course of trying to convince us that being Ryan Reynolds would be a bad thing.)
The body-switching movie is a conservative genre at the best of times — the lessons usually include things like "parents are actually cool" and "don't harbor any ambitions to be more than what you already are." But The Change-Up is by far the most conservative film of them all, because in the end, we're left with no doubt that being a career-obsessed corporate drone in a traditional family unit is the only worthwhile existence. In the end, Bateman realizes that he wants his old life back — and Reynolds realizes that he doesn't deserve Bateman's life, because he hasn't earned it. Neither of them wants Reynolds' life of being rich, handsome and idle, because it's terrible.
In fact, take away the fact that Reynolds has a rich daddy, and this film is actually closer to Trading Places than Freaky Friday. (And yes, I know this analogy requires you to imagine Ryan Reynolds as Eddie Murphy.) By being put into Ryan Reynolds' body, Jason Bateman is cast out of yuppie paradise into outer darkness, while Reynolds has to use his street-smart wisdom to navigate the corporate world. Except, of course, that there's nothing in this movie quite as funny as Eddie Murphy discovering the jacuzzi.
That's not to say there aren't any funny moments — at one point, Jason Bateman is changing diapers, and his face gets spattered with baby powder and then large amounts of baby poop. Later, when Bateman is inhabited by Reynolds, he advises his oldest daughter to resort to violence to solve her problems, and the result is genuinely awesome. Some of the scenes of Bateman acting like an overgrown frat boy trying to pretend to be a sober businessman are kind of lovely. There is some pleasingly weird homoeroticism between Bateman and Reynolds, like when the former shaves the latter's pubes before a big date. (It is a lengthy pube-shaving scene. Srsly.)
I don't know anything about the people who made this movie, but I'm assuming they're all married with kids — the propaganda for middle-class family life, and the celebration of the coolness of hard-working dads who juggle careers and kids, are laid on pretty thick. Watching this film in the midst of Economic Meltdown #522, though, it's hard not to see it as a bit of a cry of desperation — we all wish we could quit our horrible, nasty, oppressive jobs and stop thinking about our careers every second, the film says, but if you do, you'll wind up with your thumb up an ugly woman's butt, like Ryan Reynolds.
Seldom has a fantasy been less escapist. We can't even fantasize about escaping from our lives any more, because we're clinging to our lives by our fingernails. It's sort of depressing, actually. We can't afford to escape from our lives, lest our lives get repossessed while we're not looking.
Which brings us back to the fact that this movie shows us the body-swapping genre is played out. It's no longer even a fun fantasy, and we don't feel confident enough about our own identities to imagine leaving them for a short time.
Or maybe, thanks to dozens of these films, the idea of leaving your physical body and becoming someone else — entering another person's life — has become so routine that we're all used to it, and there's no point in even trying to tell a story about it any more. We're all just software, the bodies are just interchangeable hardware. Joss Whedon tried to warn us, man!
Whatever the reason, The Change-Up proves that magical identity theft is just not fun any more. We'll have to find some new cautionary fantasy to replace it. Maybe it's time for the return of being careful what we wish for?