MacGuffin Film Review – The Change-Up

Film Review – The Change-Up

I can only imagine what the pitch meeting was like when the idea to make The Change-Up (2011) was decided upon. The people who convinced the studio executives to greenlight this film must have been expert salesmen, because the premise is a tired and recycled comedy setup that was old more than fifteen years ago. Not only that, but the tone of the film is slapstick—a gross-out comedy that masquerades as a tale about finding one’s true place in life, but in reality shamelessly caters to the lowest common denominator. Sure, there are times when it tries to be better than what it is, but at the end of the day, it’s too afraid of taking that step. This is an unfunny film about two people who have no business being associated with one another, let alone temporarily taking each other’s lives as their own.

Let me tell you a little bit about the plot, and while you’re reading try to guess how it plays out before I’m done describing it. Don’t worry, it won’t be that hard. Dave Lockwood (Jason Bateman) is a successful and driven lawyer who has a beautiful wife, Jamie (Leslie Mann), and three wonderful children. He works hard to make sure food is on the table and their home is appropriately decorated. Everything seems to be going well for Dave, but there’s just one problem: he’s too career driven. Dave has become so focused on his job and becoming a partner at his law firm, that he’s forgotten what it was like to be an active husband and father, and instead goes through the motions of one like a robot set on autopilot. Dave yearns to break away from his life for even a small time—to be able to slow down and relax, to not have to worry about work or changing baby diapers at three in the morning. The opening scene says all we need to know about Dave and where he is emotionally with his status in life. And let me assure you, a “mouth full” is the appropriate description.

Now enter Mitch Planko (Ryan Reynolds). Mitch—as all cinematic friends must be written like—is the complete opposite of Dave. Mitch is a man whose personality forgot that it needed to grow up past the age of thirteen. He lives in a shabby and filthy apartment, curses every other word, and is loud and obnoxious to the point of being a cartoon. Mitch’s job is being an actor (aka: unemployed), and he has a strained relationship with his father. Things are so uncomfortable between the two that Mitch refuses to attend his father’s wedding. Now, the relationship between Mitch and his father was actually pretty interesting, and I would have liked to see this further developed. Unfortunately, that would take away from Mitch’s arrogant and egotistical posturing throughout the rest of the movie. Mitch is a character in need of some direction. He continually starts projects but never finishes them, wants to do something big but doesn’t know what, and at the end of the day would rather settle for mediocrity over sincere ambition.

Well, what do you know! With Mitch and Dave both going through a semi-existential crisis about their place in the world, what better way to solve their problems than to switch bodies/jobs/lives with each other! First off, the initial problem with this set-up (along with all the other problems this movie has) is that these are two characters who simply would not be associated at all in any kind of non-movie world. Mitch is too much of a slacker for Dave to be friends with, and Dave is way too uptight for Mitch. There’s just no way these two can actually be friends! But anyway, the  moment when Mitch and Dave switch bodies happens at that most magical of times: drunk and urinating together into a public fountain. Ahh, male bonding! The rest of the film deals with that classic fish-out-of-water trope, with Mitch trying to hold together Dave’s family and job, and Dave having to deal with the many elements that come with a being a good-looking bachelor with no sense of shame or inhibition.

We’ve all seen these kinds of movies before, where a character or characters learn more about life through a magical or preposterous circumstance that gives them an out-of-body look at their own lives. Some of the very best ones are It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), Big (1988), and Groundhog Day (1993). This film falls way below any of those in quality. The difference between this and those other films is that this relies much too heavily on the out-of-body experience, and less about these two people really learning something about themselves. There are too many scenes with Mitch (in Dave’s body) acting absurd and ridiculous at work and at home. Any man with any kind of common sense would know how to act in a professional environment, and would know that it isn’t a good idea to let toddlers play with knives! For Dave (now in Mitch’s body), he spends way too much time as his nebbish self, awkwardly trying to hook up with Sabrina (Olivia Wilde) his secretary at the firm. Would it count as an affair if you were using someone else’s body to sleep with someone other than your own spouse? Would your spouse care if you sleep with someone using someone else’s body?

There are moments where we find small insights that—if further developed—may have led towards something a little more meaningful. The later stages, where both Dave and Mitch come to realize what they really want and how they want to do it, were executed well. The relationship between Dave and Jamie is one that isn’t exaggerated. Yes, we’ve seen the storyline of an overworked husband and neglected wife before, but here it didn’t feel as blatantly cliché, perhaps because Jason Bateman and Leslie Mann work well together and make due with the material they were given. Mitch’s dad (Alan Arkin) is in only three scenes, but they’re probably the better ones of the entire film. There are these small glimpses of what could have been a better movie, but instead we come out remembering the toilet humor, nudity, and sex jokes. One of the worst instances in the movie is the conversation Mitch and Dave have about the opportunity for them to trade lovers without actually “cheating” on them. This was just a bad plot point that wouldn’t have even been an issue if Dave and Mitch were written as realistic characters who actually cared about one another’s well being, and respected each other’s female companions.

The Change-Up was written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, and directed by David Dobkin. Looking at all of their previous work, I noticed that they have worked on a few projects that I found to be entertaining, and a few that I did not find entertaining at all. This would fall into the latter category. It’s a story that, while attempting to have a heart, loses its way to vulgarity and refuses to look back. I only wish that it would have the nerve to follow the opportunities that it hinted at. Alas, that was just optimistic thinking. Watching it just made me want to go back and revisit those other films that followed this guideline, and did it much, much better.

Final Grade: C-

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