Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Change-Up

Throughout the annals of filmdom we’ve seen the same plots repeated time and again.  After all, according to some, only so many plots actually exist.  Some critics and experts alike will tell you that there is only seven classical plots to work from, where others will claim that twenty actually exist.  The argument continues to this day.  This article is not actually concerned with semantics however.  I only mention this as a brief prelude to my examination of The Change-Up, the new comedy starring Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds, a film that takes a classic, if not overdone, premise and attempts to make it new again.

The basic plot in The Change-Up is the “literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” plot that we’ve seen numerous times before.  The premise is rather simple; you take two people with seemingly contrasting lives and/or systems of values, simultaneously wishing they had the others life, an action that prompts a flash of lightning of some sort, and voila, the next morning the two characters awake to find that they have traded bodies with one another.   A few examples of some films that use this plot structure are Freaky Friday (1976), starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, or the remake in 2003, with Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, It’s a Boy Girl Thing and Rob Schneider’s The Hot Chick.

The Change-Up, while using this plot structure, well, changes things up a bit.  The writers, most notably famous for The Hangover films, take the traditionally ordinary and turn it upside down, providing exaggerations that take things to whole new comedic levels.    A few examples:
1.            The opening scene shows Jason Bateman’s character, Dave Lockwood, doing the ordinary parental task of changing diapers.  While this sort of activity is something that most every parent has experienced at one time or another, and has been overdone in countless films, The Change-Up ups the ante here.  Dave has just finished changing the first of his twins, with the only misfortune being a dose of baby powder to the face.  After he places the second twin on the changing table though the diapers are kicked out of reach.  He makes the mistake of undoing the diaper on his son before picking up the clean ones.  As he stretches for the diapers he does the proper thing and keeps one hand on his son, securing him so that he wouldn’t fall.  Just before he was able to retrieve the clean diaper and get to his son, the child relieves himself, of course, with Dave’s face being its landing space.  Now this scene has happened over and over, but mainly in regards to urination, but even to the extent shown in last years Life As We Know It.  Here, in The Change-Up, we not only get the visuals seen in Katherine Heigl’s film, but also find out Dave’s entire face was painted, including the insides of his nostrils and into his mouth.  Forced to clean up, he uses the clean diaper he had just picked up, much to the delight of his child.

2.            Throughout film mythological figures have played their role, from curses to healing as well as for wishing.  The fountain has become the symbol for making wishes.  We’ve seen characters seeking health and prosperity drink water from fountains.  They’ve thrown coins in fountains for good luck.  We’ve seen coins taken from fountains, as a good luck charm, often resulting though in nothing but bad luck.  In The Change-Up however, we see Bateman and Reynolds characters urinating into a fountain.  At which point we knew nothing good could be in store for Mitch and Dave.

3.            Sexuality is also something frequently overdone in film.  It’s to a point though that we come to expect some element of this sort to appear to some degree, in any movie dealing with romance but especially in comedies.  While one night stands and illicit or forbidden attractions are commonplace in many instances throughout the history of film, the nuances within the realm of sexuality really hasn’t been touched upon as much as it has been the past few years.  Even with this said there’s not much one can do to surprise the audience these days.  In an age where information is so freely available many a previously taboo subject is now known by far-reaching segments of the population.  In The Change-Up though, many incidents play upon this and in so doing offer up, while not novel, a definite surprise in the manner that they came to be.  Here are three such moments:

A.            Mitch has a weekly scheduled rendezvous with Tatiana, every Tuesday at 3:00am.  Mitch talks her up big time, how he’s waited for so long to meet someone like her.   He begs Dave, who at this point is in Mitch’s body, to not screw this up for him.  When Tatiana arrives on schedule, we see this beautiful girl, dressed in nothing but a trench coat.  The internal confliction Dave was experiencing, as to whether or not having relations in Mitch’s body would be considered cheating on his wife, was all but gone the minute he opened the door and saw her, beautiful and eager to give herself completely over to him.  However, this idea of turning things up a notch is continued.  While at first we see a beautiful woman with a seemingly amazing figure ready to drop her trench coat and bring the fantasy to reality, we then see, after the coat has hit the floor, that this beautiful woman is nine months pregnant.  Not only is she pregnant but we also get a glimpse of the baby kicking through her skin.  Dave feels upset that he’s been put in such a situation but also is freaked out by what his friend is into.  In addition, with this scene, as within a few others, Dave’s love for his wife is put on trial, and although he gets close a few times to “breaking vows” while in Mitch’s form, he never does, therefore keeping the sanctity of marriage true and his virtue remaining pure.

B.            Another example is seen when Dave is trying to Masturbate.  Again, not rare in todays comedic landscape on it’s own merits.  However, I can’t recall a scene in any movie where a man (Dave) is getting tips from another man (Mitch) as to what methods work best on his (Mitch) body.  This leads to both awkwardness and hilarity.

C.            Nicknames in their own right are commonplace.  Nicknames for sexual positions are just beneath nicknames in general when it comes to being overused in literature and in film.  However, once again the writers here go the extra mile, using names such as The Arsenio Hall or The Bryant Gumbel to describe certain, unspecified sexual positions.

With raunchy jokes and vulgarity galore this isn’t a film for the younger audience.  With the action being framed and filtered through a male point of view, this is primarily a film intended for male audiences.  However, when you think of the wide-ranging audiences of The Hangover films and that of a primarily female driven film in Bridesmaids, a case can be made that The Change-Up will work for a wide-ranging audience as well.

While I found the play on the traditional as the most enjoyable notions in this film, I also must state that the film isn’t solely about turning things upside down and changing things up.  The film has a moral, which really isn’t different than the other films using this plot structure.  Each person has their own unique sets of circumstances, each containing both positive and negative aspects.  While it may seem like a good idea to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, to trade places with another what we will find is that it’s not easier on the other side, that others have things just as hard as we do, but in different ways.  Yet what these films also accomplish is seeing your own life through a different scope.  You can see how your attitude, actions, lifestyle shapes the way you’re seen and who you are in other peoples eyes. 

Mitch finds out what it’s like to have a family.  He finds out that being a professional is extremely difficult, and that stating your mind has its consequences.  He also learns that he’s seen by others as being a quitter and from his body swapping with Dave he figures out how to change that stigma, how to become a better person. 

Dave finds out what he’s missing in life.  At first Mitch’s lifestyle is difficult for him because it’s not something he’s used to.  He then learns that although he could never handle a permanency living the way Mitch does, he’s able to see his own flaws, particularly shown through a conversation he has with his wife while he’s in Mitch’s body.  Dave was overworked and overwhelmed.  He was always searching for that next thing, hoping each subsequent accomplishment will bring him the happiness he’s searching for.  He’s envious of Mitch and others who are free to go and do whatever, with whomever they please.  He’s able to slow down, relax a bit, and through this he’s able to focus on what’s most important to him, which of course is found out to be his wife and children.

Sabrina, played by Olivia Wilde, is Dave’s object of desire, his fantasy.  The moment he’s about to live out this fantasy, he sees a tattoo on her thigh, of a multi-speckled butterfly, which he instantly sees his daughter from an earlier scene.  At this moment he chooses to go home, to leave his fantasy for the fantasy he already has.  One also gets the sense that Dave gave his daughter the wrong answer in that earlier scene, when he told her that the Monarch was just a glorified moth.  Now we get the feeling that all other butterflies are overhyped moths when compared to the butterflies he already has.

While I’ve read a few reviews stating how The Change-Up is simply a rehashing of an aged plot, filled with cliché and retread, I have to disagree with these reviewers takes.  The Change-Up, is a rehashing of an aged plot, filled with retread and cliché, yet it’s the way the plot, the structure and these clichéd moments of retread are spun about and reconfigured that makes it new again.  On top of this, I guess the most important thing to mention when discussing a comedy is, was it funny?  My answer to this question, as well as the answers of those in the crowded theater I shared the viewing with, which I must add was primarily male in gender, laughed out loud fairly consistently throughout the showing.  So I would have to say yeah, it was pretty funny, much, much funnier than I had expected it to be.

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