For a comedy like The Change-Up which is to say, a comedy with a message about as deep as a bowl of beer nuts familiarity with Shakespeare's disguise plays and Aesop's Fables isn't a prerequisite for getting the picture. On the other hand, familiarity with both body-switch comedies and Judd Apatow laffers is indispensable for understanding just where this raunchy Apatow imitation with a heart of Lipitor goes wrong.
The anatomy swappers here are Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), a swingin', irresponsible single guy, and Dave (Jason Bateman), a driven lawyer/husband/dad. The switcheroo goes down because the two buddies-since-childhood do something stupid during a Guys' Night Out in their hometown of Atlanta: They pee in a fountain. Specifically, they pee in a fountain presided over by a stony statue of the Greek goddess Metis while drunkenly declaring to each other, ''I wish I had your life!'' (For the record, Metis is the goddess of counsel, advice, planning, and cunning.) Dave thinks he envies Mitch's life of free sex and fiscal irresponsibility. Mitch, a wannabe actor, thinks he envies Dave's successful career, his loving home life, and his cute wife (Leslie Mann). Crash, lightning, temporary power outage, Freaky Friday! The deal is done. The next day each guy wakes up in the body of the other. Discovery of genital distinctions follows.
Here's The Change-Up's first mistake: As set up by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) and writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (The Hangover), the game is rigged. Dave may be burned-out, so much so that he has stopped appreciating his squeaky Leslie Mann of a wife. He may even feel a pang or two of extramarital lust at the sight of his beautiful law associate Sabrina as played by Olivia Wilde, who wouldn't? But no one would envy Mitch's directionless, idiotic Peter Pan life even if Peter entertains the ladies in a playpen of an apartment. The early Mitch is so excessively unsocialized and unlikable (I blame the script and direction rather than Reynolds' game performance) that there's no contest: Dave may need a little kick in the khakis to realize that he's got it pretty good at home, but he's clearly the movie's winner.
In fact, early Mitch is so obnoxious that in the end, when the two friends regain their own bodies, having learned lessons in gratitude (oops, did I give something away?), Dave is more or less Dave again. But Mitch 2.0 bears little resemblance to early Mitch. He's still Ryan Reynolds-y, but he's now someone a lot more like Dave reformed by the traditional values The Change-Up endorses than like a guy who previously kept a weekly sex date with a lady he described as a tigress.
I won't give away more about the tigress in question; let's just say she bounces and veers from Hangover turf into Farrelly brothers territory. And she also personifies The Change-Up's second mistake: The movie's scenes of id-fueled transgression are alternately desperate, trite, and an off-putting color of ugly as if the filmmakers were given the ingredients but not the cooking instructions for a successful crude-but-cuddly frittata. Gross-outs involving poop kids of all ages usually love 'em! are more humiliating than hilarious. (Really, the old toxic-baby-diaper gag?) Freakish-looking women are easy receptacles for disgust. And when jokes give way to the ''I love you, bro!'' finale, the tone oozes past charming happiness all the way to cloying self-satisfaction.
Anyway! There's one consolation, and that's in watching the stars play opposite what is often their type of guy. Bateman, in particular, is enjoyably nimble and unbuttoned when he sheds his usual persona of responsible-and-exasperated guy and lets some devil out. Quick-witted and a pro at physical shifts, he finds more subtleties in his Dave Gone Wild than actually appear in his dialogue. And that resourcefulness rubs off on Reynolds, a pleasant if less complex performer. Acting here as if he were a vaguely disgruntled but resigned grown-up, Reynolds gets to escape the tonal confines of his boyish smile. Too bad The Change-Up has little use for such interestingness. Soon enough it's back to stale jokes about spousal date nights, the sight of moldy fast-food leftovers in a bachelor's refrigerator, and the timeless male joys of sharing a whiz in an outdoor fountain after a night of drinking and bulls---. C