Costars are a good mix in ‘Change-Up’
Yes, there’s a masculinity crisis in Hollywood. And, yes, it’s sort of depressing to watch another comedy go out of its way to reinforce its protagonists’ heterosexuality. But if I must watch two men not be gay together for the 300th time this summer, those men should be Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds.
“The Change-Up’’ has a hollow conceit. The hard-working married father of three (Bateman) and the single sexoholic vulgarian (Reynolds) envy the perceived liberties of their respective lifestyles. An evening of drinking and commiseration culminates in the two of them urinating side by side into a public fountain in Atlanta presided over by a kind of spiteful goddess statue that must pity them. When they awake the next morning the dad discovers, to his horror, that he’s the vulgarian and the vulgarian discovers that he’s the dad. The setup is crudely overplayed, with projectile poop and verbal come-ons aimed at the reliably pungent Leslie Mann, who plays Mrs. Bateman and is the longest-suffering woman in so-called bromantic comedy (mentioning her marriage to Judd Apatow, who popularized and problematized the dynamic, only belabors the point).
In any case, Reynolds speaks in obscenities the way bad bakeries use cupcake icing, and Bateman is almost bitterly uptight. But the movie largely fulfills the promise of the swap. Without sex getting much in the way, this movie persuasively equates attraction to a man’s life with envy of his penis. Reynolds’s lubriciousness is over-the-top so that Bateman can sprint with the comic-cosmic baton. Essentially, the swap liberates each man from his stereotype and both actors from their personas and inspires some very funny physical comedy.
The full sociopolitical extent of the body-swap gimmick (race, citizenship, gender, partisanship, brand loyalty) remains untapped. What would happen if Katherine Heigl switched screen lives with Mila Kunis, or if Queen Latifah traded places with Angelina Jolie? Would movies ever be the same? Still, as a study of stardom, however limited in this case, it can also be fun. At the genre’s peak are John Travolta and Nicolas Cage in John Woo’s “Face/Off,’’ in which “Inside the Actor’s Studio’’ became something outrageously close to literal. “The Change-Up’’ isn’t as rich a prospect as “Face/Off,’’ in part because Bateman and Reynolds are not Travolta and Cage and because the stakes in this movie are lower: Will Bateman, doing Reynolds, sink Bateman’s character’s chance to make partner?
But there is ample fruit on that tree. You know a body-swap comedy is working when your mind is working, too. And watching Bateman adjust an office chair like he’s riding a mechanical bull or seeing Reynolds’s face in a rictus while smothered by a very naked, extremely pregnant woman, you look for a balance. Can we see Bateman in Reynolds? Can we see Reynolds in Bateman? These two find enough gray areas in their complementary sarcastic personas to render each man newly sympathetic.
Reynolds shows Bateman how to be “Jason Bateman’’ (wry but dutiful) and how to be married with children and a high-pressure corporate-law job. Bateman essentially tells Reynolds how to use his penis - on that pregnant woman, on the set of an adult movie, and, in one fascinatingly odd, loosely bold, ultimately meek telephone conversation, on himself.
Nothing directly or conventionally sexual passes between them. And as much as you’d like to credit the screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore and the director David Dobkin for basically using one genre (the body-swap comedy) to exploit and wink at another (bromance), “The Change-Up’’ only heightens the sense that were two men in a major comedy - played by, say, Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman - ever to play friends in gay love with each other, ESPN would explode. Lucas and Moore wrote “The Hangover’’ and Dobkin directed “Wedding Crashers.’’ But when Dobkin is sailing and he’s fully reclined in the Lay-Z-Boy of cynicism, as he is and does in the long middle of this movie, he’s the Billy Wilder of fraternity row.
Lucas, Moore, and Dobkin have trafficked in - some would say “exploited’’ - the permutations of male friendship. You don’t entirely trust the friendship in the movie they’ve made together. It’s too much a springboard to be real. Suspecting that, they send the comedy barreling toward you. They don’t suspend disbelief. They wedgie it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.