The Change-Up, in which Jason Bateman's discontented husband and father magically swaps bodies with Ryan Reynolds' perfectly contented slacker dumb-ass, is an appallingly smutty and juvenile slapstick. In the segment that finds Reynolds (in Bateman's body) preparing a late-night feeding for his pal's infant twins - with one tot seen playing with butcher knives and the other reaching into the blender and sticking his tongue into an electrical socket - it features one of the most painfully unfunny scenes in cinema history, and I'm not excluding any given scene in Sophie's Choice or Schindler's List.
Yet here's the rub: The movie's not uninteresting. Sure, director David Dobkin's comedy in name only is almost fiendishly amateurish and humiliates both its cast and its audience in nearly every second of its achingly protracted running length. Against all odds and expectation, however, The Change-Up does at least offer a fascinating study in contrasts, because it makes absolutely clear the true difference between active and inactive comic personality. The stars have roughly the same amount of screen time, but beyond the film's opening, plot-establishing minutes, there's barely a moment here when you're not fully aware of Bateman's presence, and barely a moment when you are aware of Reynolds'.
It's certainly not difficult to glean what's wrong with the movie, which gives up all pretense to realism, to say nothing of basic filmmaking competence, in its first minutes, when one of Bateman's babies is shown repeatedly ramming his head against the bars of his crib. (Are viewers who laugh at the sight - as many at my screening did - at all bothered that this fast-motion loop of Junior whacking his cranium looks even phonier than the sped-up antics on The Monkees or The Benny Hill Show, which at least presented such broad routines knowingly?) Astonishingly, though, the eventual body-switching angle was about the only element of The Change-Up that I did buy. Bateman's Dave and Reynolds' Mitch urinating next to one another in a fountain, making a simultaneous wish to swap lives, and doing so? Fine. The Hangover screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore failing to deliver one clever, fresh, or vaguely amusing comic inspiration, or even one that isn't embarrassing in the extreme? Not so fine.
When a film's prelude features a blast of projectile excrement landing in the mouth of one of its leading actors, you'd presume the film in question would have nowhere to go but up. Here, however, you're proved dead wrong; like an extended middle finger to the Farrelly brothers' oeuvre, The Change-Up goes on to stage visual gags involving breast-feeding, masturbation, explosive diarrhea, bisexual porn, crotch tattoos, adults exposing themselves to children, and a sexually voracious naked woman in her ninth month of pregnancy. (There's also a rather eyebrow-raising number of jokes dedicated to Dave's and Mitch's appraisals of, and experimentation with, one another's junk.) Yet the gross-out humor wouldn't be actively offensive, and might've even been riotous, if Dobkin's timing wasn't so maddeningly obvious, and if the script boasted some verbal wit in place of its constant, grindingly monotonous expletives. (It's a movie for people who reflexively cackle upon hearing someone shout "Fuck!", and unsurprisingly but sadly, there appears to be a lot of those people out there.)
Vileness aside, though, the film doesn't work - and its too-frequent slides into mawkish sentiment really don't work - because with the brief exception of Alan Arkin as Mitch's dad, its characters aren't remotely recognizable as human beings. Dave is every generically put-upon, stunted-adolescent-in-family-man-garb you've ever seen in bromantic slapsticks of this ilk, while Mitch is an aggressively clichéd fabrication of bachelorhood run amok, complete with morning hits of weed, gruesome leftovers in the fridge, an endless supply of eager hook-ups, and a stupefying lack of awareness about life past puberty. (Did you know that high-powered corporate attorneys actually don't wear shower sandals to work and don't scarf down copious amounts of junk food at business meetings? That nutty Mitch sure doesn't!) Even Leslie Mann, stuck in the badly insulting role of Dave's wife, has her endearing naturalism and emotional accuracy wasted in a script that requires her to act with almost criminal stupidity; her Jamie reacts with horror to the monstrous things her "new" husband says and does, and then in subsequent scenes conveniently forgets about or ignores his hateful behavior. (The ravishing Olivia Wilde, as a law-firm employee whom both Dave and Mitch crush on, is treated somewhat better, but her character here still comes off as slightly less believable than the one she plays in Cowboys & Aliens, which is saying a lot.)
Still, as much as I detested The Change-Up, I can't completely disregard it, because it finds Reynolds giving a pretty great performance as Jason Bateman, and Bateman giving a pretty great performance as Jason Bateman and the anti-Jason Bateman. Thanks to Arrested Development and his recent string of film roles, we're all generally familiar with the actor's screen type - sardonic, deadpan, relentlessly (if quietly) anxious, and determinedly asexual - and that familiarity continually pays off here; despite the material, it's kind of fun watching Bateman act the loutish, low-IQ horn-dog, and equally kind-of-fun watching Reynolds appropriate Bateman's verbal tics and aggrieved reactions. (By now, "Jason Bateman" is so recognizable a comic figure that Reynolds doesn't have to do much at all - a clipped sentence here, an underplayed insult there - to convince you that it's actually Bateman inhabiting his body.)
The problem, though, is that as an actor, Ryan Reynolds himself has no discernible individuality, nothing (beyond a really good agent) that separates him from any other blandly likable charmer with six-pack abs, and so when Bateman is playing him, the actor has nothing at all to play. (This might be partly why the character of Mitch has been written as such an oppressively unpleasant scumbag; when the leads' bodies are switched, how else would we recognize him?) Consequently, you tend to forget about Reynolds here even while you're staring directly at him, because while his portrayal is reminiscent of Bateman, it isn't - it can't be - reminiscent of Reynolds. The Change-Up is a foul and wretched excuse for entertainment, but I won't pretend that its lopsided nature didn't offer a modicum of amusement; it's a Jason Bateman/Ryan Reynolds body-switching comedy in which, for all intents and purposes, Bateman appears in both lead roles, and heaven knows that's more diverting than the alternative.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
In my recent Twitter message on director Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I simply wrote: "Trash that, thankfully, eventually morphs into enjoyable trash." For the first time since I began (ugh, this word ... ) tweeting 140-characters-or-less critiques a few months back, I feel almost no compulsion to elaborate. The film's first half, I thought, was perfectly acceptable nonsense, with an admirably straight-faced James Franco offering up scientific hooey, villains drawn in crayon (the apes' miserable animal shelter is run by Brian Cox - Brian Cox! - and Draco Malfoy himself, Tom Felton), and Andy Serkis' first-rate, performance-capture turn as ape ringleader Caesar more believable, and definitely more human, than Freida Pinto's veterinarian. But once the film's halfway point arrives, and a priceless laugh-turned-shudder is earned after a play on the immortal "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" line, the movie becomes a total gas, fast and furious and joyously silly.
Its dialogue is filled with clunkers, and its narrative, which features a few too many dangling threads, is awfully spotty. (Nothing ever comes from the revelation that the serum used to make the apes super-smart adversely affects humans ... although maybe something will in the inevitable sequel.) Happily, however, Wyatt lends the film a goodly share of giggly yet potent imagery; there are beautiful, scary-funny shots in which Caesar, disguised as a baby in a carriage, is pushed past the monkey cage at the zoo, and when the escaped apes fly through suburban trees and the falling leaves suggest a gentle environmental apocalypse. And in the film's San Francisco locales - with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay area's great, rolling hills and fog-covered precipices - our furry protagonists have an extraordinary playground in which to shriek, bounce, and terrorize the citizenry. Less moving than it clearly wants to be but, in the end, just as engaging and agreeably campy as you want it to be, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a more-than-fair amount of fun. It'll be an even better time once you're able to watch it at home, where you can easily skip past all the moments that drive you a little bananas.