As the latest representative in a long-established genre, The Change-Up is presumed to be a critical punching bag. Formula is, after all, our hated foe. We complain about romantic comedies that ride in the deep grooves carved out by all those that went before; we roll our eyes at action movies and live-action kiddie comedies that fall off the assembly line for our mass consumption. So you might suspect that when a movie like The Change-Up changes up the conventions of the "body swap" comedy, there would be hosannas and a general tossing of flower petals in praise of its trail-blazing ways. And you would be wrong.
Here's the ugly truth about genre formulas that critics don't usually want to speak out loud: They generally exist for good reason. While adhering to the formula is no guarantee of success — it usually helps to have people with a smidgen of talent involved, i.e. not Rob Schneider — turning it sideways isn't inevitably a step in the right direction. Whatever entertaining comedy there is to be found in The Change-Up probably comes from its adherence to precedent; its disappointments rest squarely on its misguided attempts to think outside the "body swap" box.
Because there has been at least one such premise every three to four years since the Reagan administration, we know the drill: two people (occasionally one) will express a desire for a different kind of life, and paranormal means will accommodate him/her. In this variation, buddies-since-grade-school Dave (Jason Bateman) and Mitch (Ryan Reynolds) express mutual envy for each other's respective lives over an evening of shots and beers. Dave is an overachieving attorney with a wife (Leslie Mann) and kids. Mitch is an underachieving stoner/wannabe actor who lives alone. One shared piss in a mystical fountain later, and Dave's mind is waking up in Mitch's body and vice-versa.
Bateman and Reynolds are both wise-cracking, sardonic comedic screen presences, and they both get some solid material to play with as they wreak havoc through one another's personal and professional lives. But their similarities force us to confront Body Swap Comedy Law #1: Make the switch a noticeable one. The common flip-flops of parent/kid (Freaky Friday, Vice Versa), young/old (Dream a Little Dream, 18 Again!), and male/female (The Hot Chick, All of Me) are all set-ups that allow actors room to play with very different personalities. There's just not all that much difference in The Change-Up between Bateman freaking out and swearing and Reynolds freaking out and swearing.
They also both get involved in some genuinely preposterous set pieces, which brings us to Body Swap Comedy Law #2: Let simple situations drive the comedy. It's already weird enough that two people have traded consciousness, and the fun comes from watching them confounded by what would be another person's everyday scenario. So while it's a neat gag having inexperienced parent Mitch suggest that his daughter hit back at a ballet bully, there's only head-smacking when he leaves twin babies where they can start playing with kitchen knives and stick their tongues in electrical outlets. And while it's funny watching family man Dave respond awkwardly to his first "first date" in decades, it's ridiculous watching him muddle his way through a "light porno" movie shoot involving sticking digits in exit-only locations.
Which instantly collides with Body Swap Comedy Law #3: Don't work too blue. There's a reason most previous incarnations on this theme have been family-friendly, or at least not R-rated. The concept is a fundamentally conservative one that reminds us that, whatever its troubles, our lives are basically good the way they are. The thematic twist here isn't all that radical — both guys just ultimately see where they need to improve themselves while looking through different eyes — but the content from Wedding Crashers director David Dobkin and The Hangover screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore definitely is. Even when the crudeness is hilarious, and the batting average is .500 at best, it feels like an awkward fit with the sentimentality.
It's telling that most of the best moments in The Change-Up don't involve either of the two leads at all, but rather Mann's terrific bits as Dave's frustrated, oft-ignored wife, including spilling her guts out to an alarmed babysitter. Mann knows how to get the most out of playing by the genre's rules, while The Change-Up makes the same mistake as most transgressors with an adolescent sense of humor: Thinking that breaking laws is inherently cool.