It would be foolish to deny that the premise of Blake Edwards’ Switch — a jerky Don Juan dies and returns to life as a beautiful woman, played by the sexier-than-ever Ellen Barkin — has a gimmicky allure. Steve Brooks (Perry King), a studly, fortyish advertising man who has left a trail of broken hearts, is invited to a party by three of his former flames. After seducing him into a hot tub, they proceed to shoot him, in cold blood, for being an insensitive pig. Steve is sent to purgatory, where God and the devil cook up a deal for him: He’ll be returned to earth as a woman, and if he can locate a single female who thinks he’s a nice guy, he’ll go to heaven. Otherwise, it’s on to the dark place. Edwards seems to be setting the tone for a vivacious gender-bender farce. Right from the start, though, the characters are so thin and vituperative — Steve with his swaggering, neo-1972 ”male chauvinism,” the ex-girlfriends with their cat-woman spitefulness — that the film seems less satirical than hysterical.
Gazing into the mirror, Steve (now played by Barkin) sees luxurious platinum-blond hair, legs that won’t quit, and a body that’s practically spilling out of its clothes. Before long, he’s wearing spike heels and skintight minidresses, calling himself Amanda, and taking over the advertising job Steve left behind. The comic possibilities of Switch all hinge, I think, on one essential factor: that the transsexual-fantasy conceit is used to surprise the audience — to make life from a woman’s point of view seem as much of a madcap discovery for us as it is for the hero/heroine. Yet this never quite happens. Edwards, the director who kept having Dudley Moore tumble down a hill in 10, continues his penchant for repetitive slapstick. Here, he has Barkin tottering on her high heels in scene after scene. As Amanda, she also has a way of crossing her legs that’s both a little too masculine and a little too revealing. The comedy doesn’t go much further than this. What’s disappointing — and, indeed, rather bizarre — about Switch is that Edwards shows almost no interest in a woman’s experience outside of…well, the clothes.
Like Edwards’ previous sex comedies (10, S.O.B., Victor/Victoria), Switch is in many ways a throwback to the presexual revolution era. It unfolds in a weirdly plastic retro universe in which men go to rowdy bars, talk dirty, and (yes!) play pool, and women are sexpot vipers who do none of these things. Yet the problem isn’t just that these defining traits are outdated; it’s that the characters are nothing but surfacy behavioral cliches. There isn’t a scene in which, say, someone tries to put the moves on Barkin in a bar and we get an up-close look at what a former pick-up artist like Steve might behold — the shock of recognition, the comic arrogance of a man on the make. Instead, the humor runs to Amanda socking guys in the jaw and grabbing their crotches.
The talented Barkin is almost too intense an actress for this sort of fantasy-farce material. She isn’t a natural comedian, and so she can’t create the kind of slaphappy body language that Steve Martin brought to his role-reversal stunt in All of Me. What Barkin is, without a doubt, is hot. And that’s where Edwards seems only half-conscious of what he’s doing.
Like the classic Tootsie, Switch is framed as a selfish lothario’s comic comeuppance. By suddenly being placed — literally — in a woman’s shoes, Steve is meant to gain a new sensitivity to what the modern female has to endure. Casting the sultry Barkin, though, establishes a richer layer of meaning. For Steve has, of course, been transformed into his own wet dream. This should be the movie’s deepest, most subversive joke. Yet Edwards doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. He stages several queasy homoerotic (or is it auto-erotic?) encounters — queasy because the scenes are so unresolved, so coyly vague, that we’re not at all sure how to read Steve/Amanda’s attitude. Does Barkin seduce a beautiful, lesbian cosmetics executive (Lorraine Bracco) simply to seal a business deal, or because Steve is attracted to her? And if Steve is repulsed by the thought of having slept with his best friend (Jimmy Smits), why is he so eager, after a crucial plot twist, to marry the guy? Switch leaves one feeling that Blake Edwards is more than a little confused. C-