The Change-Up: Afraid of Apes

The Change-Up OnesheetMy wife is an apist. I hate to admit it, but she has something against apes. I wish I had known this before we got married. I’m so embarrassed, so ashamed. Well, maybe it isn’t all apes, but she has something against seeing any of the Planet of the Apes movies, so maybe she’s only against badass apes. When I strongly suggested that we see the new movie anyway, she reminded me of the most fearsome thing in the universe.

Sidenote to men: Don’t ever tell a loved one what terrifies you. No matter how much sympathy they muster in the moment, there will come a time when they use it against you, when they wheel it out like Hannibal Lecter on the dolly they keep for crazy people.

Every year my mother forced us to watch it. Even though we saw it so often, I don’t remember much about the movie. All I remember is sitting there on the floor in my pajamas, my toes clenching the carpeting, just waiting for the horror to begin, afraid to watch, afraid not to watch. I’m talking, of course, about the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

It’s a great movie, yes. You get no argument from me on that. But what terrified me—terrifies me to this day—are the witch’s furry minions. I admit it. They creep me out. Royally. Those little monkeys with the wings and the red vests or shrugs or whatever. Are they human? Animal? And the flying with the claws and the teeth! And what’s that they’re wearing on their heads? Looks like a cross between the crest on a centurion’s helmet, a Mohawk haircut, and a fez.

In short. I hate ‘em. I, too, am an apist, I guess. The Sleeper reminded me of my fear and wondered aloud whether I would “cry like a little baby” when the apes started leaping around and all-but-flying.

I had to admit I would.

Which is how we ended up at The ChangeUp. Roger Ebert claims that the movie’s dirty-minded, obscene, and low in every way. OK, he’s right. But The Change-Up is also a very funny movie and probably, with Bridesmaids, the best written comedy of the year so far. It’s a movie about why you shouldn’t pee in public places. Kind of.

At first you think it’s going to be little more than a variation on the old body-swap, a movie tradition that includes everything from Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Heaven Can Wait, Freaky Friday, Like Father Like Son, Goodbye Charlie, Trading Places, Dave, The Hot Chick, and even Face/Off and Mulholland Drive. Come to think of it, I suppose even Avatar and Being John Malkovich could be considered body-swap movies. And let’s not forget the novel that’s the granddaddy of the genre, Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. But somehow, despite the number of times Hollywood has already made this movie, The Change-Up manages to bring something fresh to the table.

Ryan Reynolds plays the out-of-control Mitch Planko, a self-styled actor who works in “lorno” movies (light porno), but whose full-time profession is slacker. Jason Bateman plays Dave Lockwood, successful corporate lawyer in triple-pleated slacks, the team player who’s done everything right but who regrets missing out on “all the sex, drugs, and bad choices” of his best friend’s life.

Plot-wise, The Change-Up doesn’t surprise. Slacker switches bodies with Success, resulting in hilarious complications. Dear Abby, am I really cheating on my wife if I go to bed with a woman when I’m in another guy’s body? Answer: really? I mean, really? Do you really not know the answer to that!? By the end of the movie, each will become a wiser and more complete human being because of what each has experienced in the other’s body.

What’s different about The Change-Up is that the actors do more than mug for the camera and spout one-liners. They actually act. Reynolds and Bateman are very good together. Like the characters played by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids, you believe Reynolds and Bateman as unlikely friends. (What other kind are there?) And the always excellent Leslie Mann is very funny as Dave’s wife. Anxiety builds up in her like an air raid siren getting ready to blow.

The Change-Up has a heavy dose of the inappropriate, the offensive, and the downright outrageous, which we haven’t really seen yet in a body-swap movie. Note, for instance, the Freudian lumber in the characters’ names. And what other movie can you name where the climax is triggered by the line “You ready to take a piss?” And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Like Bridesmaids, The Change-Up makes The Hangover II look as tame as a documentary on the principle exports of Thailand.

I can’t remember an audience laughing this much in a long time—not polite chuckles, but the sudden waterfall of spontaneous laughter. And despite spending the morning chasing down a runaway horse, The Sleeper slept nary a wink.

Apes may rise, but not, I’m afraid, in my future.

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Bridesmaids Makes It

Bridesmaids Onesheet

Kristin Wiig, like Will Ferrell, can go from looking and acting like the most ordinary person on the street to becoming a loose-jointed lunatic yodeling out her complaints against the world. The character she plays is always a little off, a little out-of-place. There’s a scene in Bridesmaids where a cop stops her, thinking she’s driving drunk. He makes her walk the line, which she does, until it quickly turns into the kind of dance a chicken might do if she were drunk and on top of a flagpole. Through it all she never steps off the white line. For me, that’s emblematic of the kind of comedy Wiig does so well. If she were completely out of control, we wouldn’t identify with her. But because there’s something solidly real about her, we do.

Wiig plays Annie, the outsider who’s always trying to impress the cool girls, but whose every gesture calls the wrong kind of attention to her. So when her best friend, played winningly by Maya Rudolph, gets engaged, Annie’s world begins to fall apart. She’s afraid she’ll be left behind as her friend marries and movies into a different circle of friends. In fact, it begins right away when Annie discovers her best friend’s new best friend, played with cat-like glee by Rose Byrne, who’s so perfect in every way that poor Annie knows she can never compete. So she does what every child does when she can’t get her way. She makes a scene. And another. And another. Each one tops the last, until Annie hits bottom.

It’s great to see the late Jill Clayburgh, who plays Annie’s mother, a woman who believes she’s an alcoholic though she’s never taken a drink. Clayburgh was the darling of romantic comedies in the 70’s, including It’s My Turn, and dramas like An Unmarried Woman, so it’s a surprise to see her do well in a raunchy and irreverent comedy like this one. It just proves she was a pro, and I miss her.

Wiig walks that narrow margin between sanity and insanity. Even during a quietly realistic scene, you can see a touch of hysteria, like a light shining under the door. When her character finds herself in an uncomfortable social situation (and for Annie, all social situations are uncomfortable), that door starts to open. First there’s a tremor of anxiety around the mouth. Then her chin draws in, and her eyes widen. Soon she flings herself into the wildly inappropriate, not just saying the wrong things but singing them diva-like one moment, squeaking out sarcastic impressions of people the next, and growling out condemnations after that.

In some ways, her zaniness reminds you of Russell Brand, but with Brand the zaniness feels laid-on, mechanical. His character never tries to fit in, or by the time he does, it’s too late for us to feel much for him. Wiig’s character, on the other hand, wins us from the get-go. At the start of the movie, she’s already lost her bakery, and she’s forced to live with a British brother and sister who seem like escapees from a Wallace and Gromit movie. She’s in a loveless friends-with-benefits relationship. But at least she has her best friend. Until she doesn’t. We’re with her because we know how hard it is sometimes to fit in, to feel you belong in the space you occupy. So when she freaks out, she seems to speak—or shriek—for us all.

The movie was written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo (who has a funny cameo) and in the spirit of its executive producer, Judd Apatow. I like Knocked up, Step Brothers,r and Apatow’s other movies just fine, but Bridesmaids made me laugh out loud more often, and that’s because it has a lot of heart, heart that’s not just tacked on at the end but that arises from character and starts with the very first scene.

Bridesmaids’ ensemble cast is excellent, too, especially Melissa McCarthy, who plays the stocky friend. If this were a guy movie, the character would be the trigger for a series of fat jokes. But McCarthy’s role has more dimension than that. She’s overcompensating for her weight by presenting herself as the self-styled expert on everything who flirts with guys as if she can have any one she chooses (and as it turns out, she can).

The story itself is fairly weak: a woman’s self-esteem and fragile hold on happiness are tested when her best friend becomes engaged. But the many pleasures of this movie come from the wicked writing and from the strong performances. It’s great to see a movie that not only assembles such a talented cast of women, but which gives the audience a woman-centered sensibility as well. And one and all, the actors eat it up. It’s as if the coach has finally put them in the game, and they can’t wait to show their stuff. Wendi McLendon Covey is great as the overwrought mom who’s dying for an escape from her teenaged sons. Ellie Kemper plays the naive friend, the movie’s weakest link. Capable but forgettable, she actually seems to disappear from the movie by the end.

Anthony Lane in The New Yorker complains that Bridesmaids has a split personality, that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a women’s movie or a gross-out comedy. It think it achieves both with great success. Yes, there’s gross-out comedy (the food poisoning scene is about as gross as it gets). And, yes, there are moments of bonding among the women. For me it all worked, especially Wiig and Rudolph, who play best friends with the easy intuitiveness of real friends. It’s even more impressive that the women in this movie are all over thirty and look like real people.

For most of the comedies I see, the audiences sit quietly. This isn’t because they’re humorless or polite. It’s because the so-called comedies don’t give them much to laugh at. Oh, there may be a chuckle now and then, but that’s about it. Again and again in Bridesmaids, the audience broke into sudden laughter, the best kind, sprinkled liberally with “Oh my Gods!” It reminded me of what Hollywood comedies are supposed to be like.

P.S. The Sleeper was wide awake throughout.

Your Intergalactic Dudeness

Paul OnesheetHas anyone seen my sense of humor? It was here a minute ago. I must have lost it. What else would explain how I sat stone-faced through Paul. Not a laugh, not a chuckle, not a titter. I smiled once, when Blythe Danner delivers a line to Sigourney Weaver that Weaver first delivered in Aliens, one of several homages to science fiction movies. But that was it.

I don’t really think my sense of humor has gone missing. I think, once again, that Hollywood has failed to bring the funny. Paul just never gives you anything much to laugh at. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost specialize in movies that have great central ideas (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) but then fall apart in the execution. Here two vacationing sci-fi fanatics from England visit the locations of UFO sightings, when they run into an actual alien, a dope-smoking, obscenity-spouting pop culture addict. In other words, Seth Rogen. It’s a joke that lasts for about as long as the trailer, but at 104 minutes, the joke wears awfully thin awfully fast.

According to the story, Paul is the alien who crash-landed at Area 51 way back when. Since then, he’s been advising everyone from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood. Now his captors are finished with him and want to turn his brain into a tray full of heavy apps. Enter our heroes, who try to help him escape. Not funny, right? In fact, it sounds more like a standard science-fiction action thriller. Question: does the concept have to be funny in order for the movie to be funny? Maybe not. Mars Needs Moms is one of the funniest concepts/titles I’ve heard in a long time, but it isn’t enough, I guess, if the box office is any measure.

So funny must come from the execution, right? We’ve had threatening aliens (War of the Worlds, Alien). We’ve had lovable aliens (ET and, well, ET). We’ve even had straight-faced, no-nonsense aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still, John Kerry). We’ve even had funny aliens (Men in Black), so why isn’t Paul funny? After all, he looks like a hydrocephalic lizard with the pallor of that leftover chicken leg in the back of the refrigerator. That’s funny, right? And he sounds like a cross between that roommate you never should have let in the door and Jeff Bridges in full Dude-mode. Isn’t that funny? Paul spends a lot of time trying to maintain his buzz, swearing, scratching his privates. He consumes coffee and bagels, cigarettes, pot, live birds, and Reese’s Pieces. But these details never rise above the mildly amusing. He does have at least one good rant. He hates it when Earthlings assume he’s going to anal probe them, and I’m with him on this. I’ve always wondered how it is that an alien life-form can supposedly travel clear across the universe and remain virtually undetected, but their most sophisticated method for examining human life is the anal probe. Really? I mean, really?

And doesn’t context count when it comes to funny? At one point, the house owned by Blythe Danner’s character is blown to bits, killing one of the inept and unknowing government agents chasing Paul. A person has died. but as our heroes drive away, Blythe Danner’s character looks back at the destruction and moans, “My weed!” Maybe the discovery that an older woman is a pothead could be mildly amusing . . . to a twelve-year-old. (Hint to the young: her generation invented weed!)

Maybe the funniest moment, given away in the trailer, happens when Paul revives a dead bird, only to eat it. When his new friends cringe and groan, he says, “What? I wasn’t going to eat a dead bird!” But we’ve seen it too many times to laugh. And anyway, very quickly the theme-machine gets trundled in. “Have you ever fixed a dead person?” Simon Pegg’s character asks. And the big-headed, thin-lipped green guy replies, “Oh no, it could bounce back on me. Very dangerous.” And of course, you know, by movie’s end, our friendly alien will be called on to face that challenge.

Why is Paul so unfunny? Maybe because aliens who are comfortable among us Earthlings, steeped in our culture and caught up in our vices, are only funny for a minute, whereas aliens for whom all of this is new are funny minute-by-minute Think Jeff Bridges in Starman. Think Jerry Lewis in Visit to a Small Planet.

Jason Bateman does a good Tommy Lee Jones impression, but is forced by the script to hide his comic talent and timing. Kristen Wiig has a few moments as a Bible-thumper who swears in imaginative ways, calling a couple of threatening good-old-boys “You vaginas!” But that joke wears thin, too. Stephen Spielberg has a nice cameo. And Jeffrey Tambor has a good turn as a self-important science-fiction novelist who can’t stand his fans. And Jane Lynch has a couple of brief shining moments with her patented brand of sardonic, slightly mean-spirited, slightly suggestive off-the-wallery. Does she bring her own writer to these gigs, or does she make this stuff up? Sadly, even the talents of Wiig, Tambor, and Lynch aren’t enough to revive this dead bird.