The experience of viewing The Change-Up is summed up perfectly in the film’s first scene. Dave (Jason Bateman), an inattentive father, wakes up to the cries of his two babies and heads down the hall to change their diapers. At one point in the process he knocks over a stack of diapers and leans over to reach them, leaving one hand on his child for support. While crouched, he turns to look back at his baby, at which point we get a medium shot of the infant’s raised legs and exposed anus. Computer trickery causes the buttocks to flex and the shadowy area around the sphincter to expand and contract, after which a jet of black-green fecal matter is sprayed onto Dave’s emotionless face. He attempts to voice his shock and displeasure only to receive a second blast that coats his open mouth and tongue. This is all in the film’s first few minutes, and it gets to the heart of everything that will eventually go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s not merely that writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover, Four Christmases) are so enamored of infantile humor that they will sacrifice every single competent screenwriting rule just to clear the path for more bathroom humor, nor that director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus) seems determined to dwell as long as possible on some genuinely disturbing body gags. It’s that this — a baby shitting into a man’s mouth — is the best thing they could come up with to start their story. It smacks of laziness, idiocy, and total disrespect for the viewing audience, and it’s symbolic of the viewer’s experiences on the death march to the end credits. Over the course of a stupefyingly dull 100 minutes in which we try to voice disgust or worry or confusion, we’re given nothing but more crap for our trouble.
The Change-Up is a body-swap comedy, a loose subgenre that traces its modern American roots to 1976’s Freaky Friday and that saw a curious spike in popularity in the late 1980s. (18 Again, Vice Versa, and Like Father, Like Son all came out within six months of each other in 1987-1988, plus there was the pop culture behemoth that was 1988’s Big, which worked from a similar premise.) Yet it’s always possible to stand out from the crowd even when you’re reworking a very specific high-concept comedy — we are, after all, still watching Big — as long as you care about what goes into the story. The filmmakers of The Change-Up do not. The ugly, ungainly screenplay feels reverse-engineered from a few major set pieces that rely solely on flat, preteen-aimed punch lines for effect, and the rest of the scenes are glued together with racial slurs, homophobic taunts, and enough random expletives to make David Simon blush. It’s just plain unfunny, which is a death sentence for a comedy. You can get away with just about anything as long as you’re smart enough to be funny, but The Change-Up is clogged with half-plots, montages, scenes that go nowhere, and dialogue that mistakes shouting for passion and anger for humor. It’s a grueling slog, and one of the least pleasant experiences I’ve had at the movies in a long time.
Dave, of crap-eating renown, is a harried lawyer and mostly OK father who nevertheless finds himself emotionally drained, financially unhappy, and constantly fantasizing about the new associate at his firm, Sabrina (Olivia Wilde). His friend since childhood, Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), is a socially and spiritually handicapped man-child who smokes pot all day, works a few jobs as an actor, and gleefully debases as many women as possible. Right away, it’s unclear just what lesson Mitch and Dave are going to need to learn — to appreciate what they have, to change their lives completely, or some mix of the two —but Lucas and Moore are on autopilot. There isn’t even a mystical backstory that introduces the body swapping, which you think they’d at least want to mention. Dave and Mitch are out drinking one night when they stop at a fountain in a park to urinate, and while peeing into the water each wishes aloud for the other’s life, and bam, the next morning their minds have changed bodies. Most body-swap stories work in a token of some magical import that kicks the action into gear, whether it’s a totem from a lost civilization or a vaguely otherworldly device that becomes infused with the hero’s deep yearning and grows powerful for unknown reasons. (cf. Big’s iconic Zoltar machine, 13 Going on 30’s “wishing dust,” even the happenstance of Friday the 13th in the original Freaky Friday.) But there’s no magic here, no sense of adventure or creativity; the men simply swap bodies so they can move on to being embarrassed by whatever Farrelly Brothers Lite version of hell the writers have dreamed up for them.
For Mitch (in Dave’s body), that means making sexual advances at Sabrina, tossing young children around like laundry, and getting into constant fight’s with Dave’s wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann). For Dave (in Mitch’s body), it means navigating his way through Mitch’s life, including a run-in with Mitch’s regular booty call and a day spent on the set of the Cinemax-level porno that Mitch was set to star in before the whole existential nightmare. Each man finds himself repulsed by the other’s life, but they’re unable to reverse the process because the fountain has been moved by a construction company to an unknown destination. (In a turn that’s either a nod to Big or just a lazy crutch, the men have to fill out paperwork with the city to find it, leaving them stranded in each other’s bodies for several business days.) Stuck, they’re forced to try and live each other’s lives with as few hiccups as possible. Spoiler alert: There are hiccups.
Mitch finds himself unable to fake his way through Dave’s job — which is reassuring, since Dave has a law degree — so he winds up jeopardizing a potential merger with a Japanese company. Yet Mitch isn’t just incompetent. He’s callous and cruel, and impossible to like. It’s not enough for him to be hung up on his own insecurities: Lucas and Moore make him racist and homophobic, as if being brash and offensive to all quadrants were the same thing as having a point of view. He uses the word “gay” as a pejorative dismissal and refers to the Japanese businessmen as “squids,” “Japs,” and “kamikaze pilots,” all (I believe) in one sentence. (Not to be ignored, Dave’s boss at one point tells him to change out of his blazer-and-slacks combo because he looked “like a Jew.”) He’s thoroughly off-putting, but then, this is what Lucas and Moore do. They ascribe awful character traits to a paper-thin character, make him smug beyond belief, and roll the dice that a handsome enough actor will be able to distract people from the fact that the character’s a sociopath. It worked for Bradley Cooper’s self-centered philanderer in The Hangover (“worked” here obviously meaning that their plan was executed, not that it was a good idea), and they return to the polluted well for The Change-Up.
Dave, on the other hand, is ritualistically humiliated in Mitch’s life, right down to being made to simulate sex with an old woman as part of the “acting” gig Mitch was so happy to get. The acting job and related plot don’t return after Dave’s first experience there, and it’s likely that Dobkin forgot about the scene the instant it wrapped. What would have happened if Dave had to keep returning to set? How would he have tried to escape unscathed while also keeping Mitch’s career relatively intact? How would he have interacted with Mitch’s colleagues? Doesn’t matter. Such elementary lines of thought are ignored altogether, and the sequence doesn’t serve any purpose except to make Dave do unpleasant things with his hand to an elderly woman’s posterior. The scene is one of many that feels awfully forced, as if Dobkin and crew had no goal other than to ride hell for leather toward an R rating and hope something funny would just kind of happen. It doesn’t.
The cast, as you’d expect, gets lost in all the madness. Mann is the only one who feels like a human being, and if she’s relying on the work she did in Knocked Up and Funny People, at least she’s making it work. Wilde feels mass-produced and pulled fresh from whatever assembly line delivers wide-eyed brunettes to West Los Angeles every year: She speaks her lines clearly, but doesn’t do much else. Her character’s written so poorly, though, that you want to forgive her. She’s not meant to do anything else here but act as an object of hypersexual desire for Dave as he simulates cheating on his wife. As for the leads, Reynolds and Bateman are able to easily act out the personality swap because their characters have precisely one trait apiece: Dave is neurotic, and Mitch is crass. They each start out as exaggerated versions of the screen personas Bateman and Reynolds have become known for, and they only get broader and less relatable from there. Dave, in Mitch’s body, goes on a few dates with Sabrina; Mitch, in Dave’s, tries his best to get close to Jamie. That’s a pretty odious set-up in any comedy, and it doesn’t become less worrisome just because the men look different on the outside.
The film drags on almost interminably through a series of half-hearted checkpoints that not even Dobkin seems to be interested in, leading to pointless, zero-stakes plots meant to convey emotional depth that instead feel hollow and rote. Dave wants to make partner, land the merger, be with his wife, and support his daughter; Mitch wants to sleep with Sabrina, and maybe also impress his dad (Alan Arkin). There are no clear goals and no real motivation for anything because, again, the film is nothing more than a sloppily assembled series of non-jokes from which Lucas and Moore worked backward until they had enough pages to justify hiring actors and renting cameras.
The Change-Up gets just about everything wrong: It’s a comedy with no sense of humor, and it aims for depth but winds up with tacky, tacked-on sentimentalism. It thinks hate is the same thing as comedy, and that horrible characters deserve forgiveness simply for existing. It’s dull, predictable, staggeringly obnoxious, and just plain bad. No amount of wishing will change that.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.