Monday, August 1, 2011

The Change-Up

Genre: Comedy
Premise: A married father accidentally switches bodies with his single best friend. Hilarity ensues.
About: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (writers of The Hangover) I believe sold this on the eve of that film’s success, but I’m not positive about that. They may have sold it a little earlier. Lucas and Moore wrote together for nine long years before their big success in The Hangover, mostly as script doctors trying to make existing comedy scripts funnier. Despite having the biggest box office R-rated comedy of all time to their credit, they were not asked to come back for The Hangover 2, which was probably appropriate since the new writers just changed all the sluglines to “Thailand” and did a search and replace for “baby,” turning it into “monkey.” Why pay the original writers a bunch of money to do that? The Change-Up stars Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds and comes out this Friday.
Writers: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Details: 122 pages – July 31, 2009 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I have a secret that I’ve been hiding from Scriptshadow readers for a long time now. And I’m sick of keeping it from all of you. We all have to come clean at some point right? And I’m okay with the fact that this secret will likely eliminate 30% of my readership.

But you know what? Fuck it. You’re not really living if you’re living a lie.

I don’t know when it was, exactly, that I began hiding this from the world. But something somebody recently said in the comments section helped me come to terms with it. They said: “If people admitted to liking the movies they REALLY liked as opposed to the movies they thought they were supposed to like, Top 100 lists would be different everywhere.”

And with that, I have to come clean. I sorta kinda like body-switch movies.

There. I said it.

It’s out there now. Wow. I feel like 200 tons worth of film reels have been lifted off my shoulders.

I don’t know what it is about them, and I realize that body-switch movies are one step below Martin Lawrence vehicles. But I still watch them. I do. I paid money to rent 17 Again. A friend of mine caught me. And boy was that an awkward conversation. But after pretending like I didn’t know how it got there at first, I finally came clean.  These days, I'm lucky if he returns one of my texts.

 I don’t know if there’s some psychological issues there. If I should look for help. Was I abused as a child? Did I have to role-play in order to get out of traumatic situations? Pretend I was another person? Whatever the case, when two people switch bodies: COUNT ME IN.

Naturally this brings me to today’s script. But first, it brings me to today’s writers. The Change-Up is written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the writers of The Hangover. Now I thought The Hangover was great. One of the best comedy specs in recent history. But I read one of their other scripts, Flypaper, about a couple of groups trying to rob the same bank at the same time, and thought it was one of the worst comedy specs in recent memory. So I really didn’t know what to expect here. Was this going to be Flypaper stupid or Hangover awesome?

Attorney Dave Lockwood is a father of three very young children. Dave therefore spends the majority of his middle nights racing to a crib and settling those kiddies down – getting vomited and pooed on in the process. When no one else is looking, Dave tells others that everybody secretly hates kids, but will never say so because it’s impossible to say you hate kids without looking like a complete asshole. But it’s true, he insists, everybody secretly thinks it. Of course, Dave doesn’t really hate his kids. He also doesn’t really hate his slave-driver of a wife. It’s just that a lot of days he wishes he could be single again. No responsibilities and all the time in the world.

On the flip side is Dave’s best friend Mitch Planko. Mitch is an unemployed actor who does the occasional skin-flick before disappearing into his apartment for lots of bong-smoking and booty calls. He lives off his father, who’s secretly ashamed of him, and could very well parlay this lifestyle into his 60s, if life allows for it. Mitch loves his life. But there’s a tiny part of him that secretly wants that stability, that wants someone to love and to be loved back.

One night, Mitch and Dave go to the Dodgers game, get drunk, and start talking about how lucky the other is. Mitch admires how much security Dave has. How he gets to have sex with a hot woman whenever he wants. How rewarding his job is. And Dave admires how Mitch gets to hook up with random girls all he wants, and most importantly, has SO MUCH FREE TIME. While they’re drunk and pissing in a fountain, they accidentally wish for each other’s lives. Naturally, the next morning, they wake up in each other’s bodies.

They figure out what’s happened pretty quickly, and run back to the fountain. But the fountain’s gone. In a page out of Big’s book, it’s been relocated somewhere, and the parks and recs people won’t know where for a few weeks. Immediately, damage control needs to be done. Dave, who’s trying to make partner, has a huge meeting that will likely determine if he gets a promotion. Unfortunately, Mitch, who considers this a great acting opportunity, will have to go to this meeting instead. And Mitch just got a huge Skinemax film, which, of course, Dave will have to do. Dave is quite possibly the worst actor in the history of the planet, so that’s going to be interesting.

After that craziness, the two try to tell Jamie, Dave’s wife, what happened, but of course she doesn’t believe them (in a clever scene where Dave demands Jamie ask him three things only he would know – only to see him, in classic man fashion, not know the answer to any of them). That means they’ll have to officially become each other. Mitch, as catastrophic as this sounds, will have to take care of Dave’s kids and wife, while Dave is tasked with keeping the most important booty call ever – the craziest wildest sex Mitch has ever had: Tatiana – in Mitch’s rolodex.

At first things are bumpy, but then the two start to hit a stride and actually enjoy each other’s lives. Mitch likes the idea of actually connecting with people, and taking care of a family is way more rewarding than he ever thought it could be (even if he is telling Dave’s 5 year old daughter to solve all her problems with violence) and Dave is finally loosening up - dating his super hot secretary who he’s always had a crush on. Obviously, this can’t go on forever, but while it does go on, it’s pretty damn fun.

This may or may not surprise you after the opening of my review, but The Change-Up has about as perfect of an execution as you can have for a high-concept comedy. Whether you love or hate body switch movies is up to you, but as far as HOW THEY EXECUTED the idea, they pretty much did it flawlessly. They mine the concept for everything it’s worth (numerous fish-out-of-water sequences putting both characters in situations they’re not qualified for), they have character arcs for both characters (Dave has to learn how to not be so uptight – Mitch has to learn how to be responsible), the three act structure emerges beautifully here. And most importantly, both characters are funny (of course this last part is a matter of opinion). Especially Mitch.

Here’s what confuses me though. Friday I talked about a comedy that didn’t try to be new in any way. And yet there’s nothing that new about The Change-Up either. Yet I was laughing all the way through it. And I realized that there’s a variable I often forget about when it comes to comedy: familiarity. Audiences laugh at characters dealing with familiar situations because they too have encountered those situations. They know exactly what those characters are going through. Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm based their entire shows around this.

But this works in complete opposition to my theory that “you gotta make things different” to stand out in the comedy world. How can you make something familiar different? I think that’s the big question. Otherwise, I’m just throwing around contradictory advice. If anyone has an opinion on this, I’d love to hear it. Because I did find myself laughing at actor Mitch trying to fake his way through Dave’s attorney meeting, even though I pretty much knew exactly what happen in the scene.

One of the big differences may just be the funiness factor. If an unfunny writer writes a comedy that’s totally different from any other comedy out there, it’s still not going to be as funny as a familiar comedy where the writer IS funny. I mean I thought Mitch was a really funny character with some great lines. Whether it’s telling Jamie that he thinks one of the twins looks “downsy” or his intense description of “nose-bleed sex” with Tatiana, he pushes the envelope just enough to keep you laughing. It seems like so many of these characters are of the safe “PG-13” variety. It was nice to see someone in a supposed “family comedy” saying shit your insane best friend might say in real life.  So maybe "just being funny" supercedes all rules. Of course that doesn't help us, because everyone thinks they're funny.  So to give unfunny people who think they're funny free rein to do whatever they want is probably a bad idea.  I don't know.  As is usual, I still haven't figured out what makes a great comedy spec great yet.  There's too much subjectivity involved. 

Structurally, the only real fault in The Change-Up is the end of Act 2. As I was discussing in my 2nd Act article a couple of weeks back, you have to gently ease into that “lowest point” that is the 2nd act ending, which usually takes about 15 pages. Here, one second they’re happy as clams with their new lives, the next they realize it’s all really bad and they need to switch back. Nothing convinced me that that change needed to come, so it was the lone execution error in the entire script.

But outside of that, this script was just fun and funny. And maybe I’m on an island here because I’m a closet body change up lover, but I thought that even if you don’t like these kinds of movies, you have to admit that this was done about as well as it could be.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: This is an oldie but goodie. In these types of comedies, MAKE SURE YOUR CHARACTERS ARE LEARNING SOMETHING ALONG THE WAY. The journey they’re on has to test their flaws. Mitch is irresponsible so his journey (being a lawyer, raising a family) tests his responsibility. Dave is too wound up so his journey (having all the time in the world, having the freedom to do whatever he wants) tests how well he can loosen up. When they switch back, they’re better people. That may seem pat, but you’re not writing The Godfather here. You’re writing a high concept comedy. These character arcs are a requirement.