The Change-Up exists in a still relatively new kind of comedy genre, popularized most recently by The Hangover. Before The Hangover most funny movies fell into one of two categories: cartoony or realistic. Realistic comedies try to mine the minutiae of every day life and usually will only stretch that reality so far. Cartoony ones put their characters in ridiculous situations, using just about anything and everything no matter how ridiculous, to make the audience laugh. Part of the reason the original Hangover worked so well is that it did a better job of finding that middle ground between those two extremes than any movie before it, existing in a world we could all identify and relate to… but that also might have Mike Tyson’s tiger locked in a bathroom. The Change-Up continues that tradition better than any other comedy this year, by existing in a story created by an utterly cartoonish body-switching premise while still finding the reality of problems in every day life created by that piece of ridiculousness. As it did for The Hangover, it works brilliantly here.
Much of the genius in the better work of Change-Up director David Dobkin has always been in knowing when to stop. With The Wedding Crashers, which skewed more towards the realistic, he made his lead characters douchey enough to have fun with them, but never douchey enough that we ended up hating them. That same philosophy is in effect here, when a married man named Dave (Jason Bateman) wishes he could be free of his stifling life and a single man named Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) wishes he didn’t have to sleep in and bang so many hot women. Ok actually Mitch really just wishes he wasn’t so alone. Mitch and Dave are friends, and one night they end up peeing in a fountain wishing they had each other’s lives. In the morning they wake up, and they do.
Don’t get hung up on the specifics of the Freaky Friday premise, The Change-Up exists in our reality where we’ve all seen a bunch of body switching movies. It’s more interesting in having fun with Mitch and Dave’s situation, and so it sets about dropping them into each other’s lives. It must be said that both Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman are brilliant comedic actors, but actors from different schools. Bateman is usually best playing stiff and uptight, while Reynolds is loose and sarcastic. Neither is, however, particularly gifted at mimicry so when they switch bodies the differences in their performances are, admittedly minimal. Reynolds does the best at attempting to pull off some of Jason Bateman’s mannerisms, but Bateman, despite efforts to the contrary, is still basically just Jason Bateman. You won’t care.
You won’t care because no matter who they’re playing both Bateman and Reynolds have wickedly perfect comedic timing coupled with great acting insticts. The Change-Up contains at least three huge laughs pulled off by virtue of their performances alone. It should be said that the script they’re working with here is at best merely mediocre, but Dobkin’s directing and the performances he gets from his incredibly gifted actors lift this story to a completely different level.
That level is more than simply funny, it’s smart too. The movie’s anchored by yet another great performance from Leslie Mann, as Dave’s long suffering and neglected wife. There was a big pitfall here, a lesser movie would have turned the character into another one of those unsympathetic nags desperate for her husband’s attention. Dave’s a workaholic and most of the conflict between them comes from his absenteeism. But The Change-Up’s too good to go there. Missing is that moment when Leslie’s character threatens to leave if Dave doesn’t stop working, in its place is a moment of heartfelt honesty in which she confesses that his drive and determination is part of why she fell in love with him, and worries whether those same things she loves about him will prevent him from ever being truly happy.
The Change-Up is more than funny, it’s smart and interesting too. It’s not a Judd Apatow movie, it’s not that poignant, but it capably walks that line between over the top comedy and sympathetic subtlety the way few other comedies are able to do. It does all of that in a world full of rated-R topless scenes, shit jokes, and computer-generated knife-wielding babies. Pulling this movie off is no mean feat, but it was worth the effort, even if it’s not perfect. Olivia Wilde’s character (though utterly charming) ends up as kind of a dead end and Ryan Reynolds’ Mitch never seems to get the same neat bookend that Jason Bateman’s Dave does. Still, The Change-Up works so well that it easily overcomes most of those problems and stakes a claim as one of the funniest movies of the summer.