'The Change-Up': Fresh, Funny Spin on Familiar Story
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
The idea's old as the hills -- wisdom won by literally walking in someone else's shoes -- and often the gross-out humor in "The Change-Up" seems designed specifically for adolescents. But for the love of Peter Pan, stifle your inner censor and give this half-smart, deliciously transgressive mess of a movie a chance.
Remember David Dobkin's "Wedding Crashers," during which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn (sorta) grew out of their hilarious bad-boy bromance so they could settle into domesticity -- with the opposite sex? Same director here, only now it's likable Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds forced out of arrested development into better manhood. When lifelong friends Dave, dutiful dad and sexual dud (Bateman), and Mitch, wild child and womanizer (Reynolds), are magicked into exchanging lives, "The Change-Up" lets loose some truly Freudian funny: therapeutic laffs with teeth.
Out of a sound sleep, our man Dave snaps awake ("It's my turn!") to head zombie-like for the nursery, where diapers need changing and yowling twins need feeding. Significantly, his little boy is given to banging his head on the bars of his crib -- hello, Dad, this is your life! In what's only the first of many excremental japes, his other kid drives this message home by splatting Dave in the face with what this too-tractable good boy has come to eat at work and at home.
But Dave hasn't been in touch with his "little boy" for years. With working three jobs, studying law at Yale, getting married and fathering three rug rats, there's been no time for daddy to play. In contrast, Mitch is all infantile impulse, sleeping as late as he likes in a bachelor pad that conjures a high schooler's cluttered bedroom, featuring a bong and posters for wallpaper. And to hear our bad boy tell it, hot, nasty sex happens practically every night on the cowhide-covered futon he dragged in off the street.
Later in this fairy tale -- and "The Change-Up" does enjoy a good-hearted, subversively gay subtext -- Mitch discovers that Dave was always a little "embarrassed of me." Such an endearingly little-kid expression, slightly shy of adult-speak. But what Dave's really not comfortable with is the anarchic, bad-behaving, consequences-be-damned masculinity his friend seemingly comes by naturally.
One drunken evening, the bros pee into a fountain under a statue wearing the deeply disapproving gaze of a dowager-mother. Suddenly the playboy and worker bee switch bodies. Here's where the therapy -- along with the comedy -- gets primal.
Monstrous mommies and objects of desire with real-live plumbing advance the boys' hilarious/horrifying sexual education: Cast as porn movie stud, Dave-as-Mitch finds himself mounting (and worse) an ancient sex bomb with huge, fake breasts, cellulite thighs and a scary mouth stretched as wide as Katherine Helmond's in "Brazil." Then fabled Tatiana, Mitch's Tuesday night regular, turns out to be a nine-months-pregnant behemoth ("I can see the baby's face!" Dave moans). Meanwhile, Mitch-as-Dave is jonesin' to "tap" his friend's beautiful wife (Leslie Mann) as she floats naked, the wind in her hair, through the boudoir -- a perfect porn fantasy blown to smithereens when she and her Thai dinner noisily part company in the bathroom. Such a scene may reference the everyday intimacy and down-and-dirty reality of married life, but for our fastidious Peter Pan, it's a total downer.
Mitch's bad parenting is wonderfully liberating. Unlike so many contemporary couples, instead of worshipping kids as fragile little godlings inspiring awe, he picks up the twins like bags of groceries and slings them every which way; strikes them dumb by out-bellowing them; and teaches their timid older sister some useful lessons in conflict resolution through violence. A wild kitchen scene featuring babies with knives, a blender and electrical outlets will stand parents' hair on end. It's dangerous anarchy, the dark but fall-down-funny side of uncensored childhood -- Mitch's as much as the infants'.
But "The Change-Up" is on the side of comedic evolution, so Mitch and Dave must move toward adulthood and monogamy, with benefits. Observing Dave sleep late, take time to read a book, skate through the park, learning to have fun, touches our own stressed-out hearts. And when Mitch watches a movie about his BFF's hard-won achievements, his slow understanding of what it means to build a career and a family doesn't come off contrived or fatuous. It's authentic epiphany.
"The Change-Up" turns toilet training into the perfect metaphor for growing up. Dobkin's comedic heroes pee themselves into and out of enchantment, each learning methods of control and relaxation, duty and play. For these American boys, talking dirty about bodily orifices and functions inspires s***-eating grins, while exorcising youthful fear of flesh. Their Wendys will always be sexy bad girls or scary, needy mommies; sometimes both. Still, this comedy -- unlike so many -- feels like it has a reason for existing: giving good, guilty fun while sometimes casting a cool eye on what it means to be a man these days.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.