It’s said that comedy (irreverent) is of the devil, and drama (solemn) is of the gods. Is there then such a thing as a classy comedy? Stand-up comedians know cursing gets cheap laughs. Bill Cosby can get huge laughs using zero cursing. He is a master of the game.
R-rated comedies these days, such as The Hangover, Bad Teacher, and Bad Santa, employ a relentless bombardment of cheap, unbelievably gross toilet humor and nonstop cursing because it usually works. The shock-value grossness functions as a running gag. At first you wince and literally gag, but by the 50th bludgeoning repetition, you’re bent double laughing.
You can fight it for a time, but it’s quicksand and will suck you down in the end. And so it is with The Change-Up. (Never, for example, has a grosser episode of diaper-changing been seen on screen.)
Like the story The Prince and the Pauper, the two leads switch bodies, with fairy tale magic. Jason Bateman is a square lawyer, Dave, and his long-time actor buddy Mitch is played by Ryan Reynolds. Olivia Wilde, also presently on screen in Cowboys & Aliens, is the heartthrob in both films. Leslie Mann steals scenes as Bateman’s long-suffering wife.
Dave and Mitch live each other’s life for a time, walk a mile in each other’s shoes, and thereby learn to appreciate their own shoes. They walk on the other side of the fence and realize it WAS actually greener on their own sides. Reynolds’s character learns integrity and accountability, and Bateman’s character learns spontaneity and fun.
When the time to switch back comes, they’re both on the verge of getting tempting things from each other’s life that neither one should rightfully have, and so the suspense becomes whether each one can pass the test and avoid the seduction.
This is basically Freaky Friday, using two dudes. For this plot edifice to work convincingly, you need opposite-looking people—like shorter, younger Lindsay Lohan and taller, older Jamie Lee Curtis—and then the actors have a physical acting challenge as well as an age challenge. With Bateman and Reynolds, who are roughly the same age with similar looks and personalities, it’s sometimes a little confusing as to whose personality is in whose body.
Just as repeated grossness forcefully readjusts what one is normally not willing to laugh at, so also does Reynolds’s character, Mitch, try to “readjust” the values of Dave’s kids. Using jailhouse cursing and lingo, he tells Dave’s ballerina daughter that vengeance is the best way to deal with a sabotaging rival.
Of course we then start rooting for the kid to get even—but Dave’s more refined teachings of “verbal resolution” go out the window as too wimpy. It would be nice to see a drama version, where verbal resolution is depicted in all its glory of massive will power and mental toughness. The very idea sounds preposterous, and most will say, “Pshht, it’s a comedy! Who cares!”
But consider this: The Greeks used drama for purposes of audience catharsis. A drama was always followed by a comedy. First you cry, and then you laugh. Balance.
With these latest R-rated comedies, there’s a slightly disturbing lack of balance. One gets arm-twisted into laughing at normally disgusting topics, but we don’t follow our comedies with something to restore our balance. The result of seeing one of these grossly funny movies is to lower one’s standards without doing anything to raise them back up again.