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MOVIE REVIEWS : Blake Edwards' 'Switch' Takes Comedy to the Edge

May 10, 1991|MICHAEL WILMINGTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Switch" (selected theaters) is a sex farce/fable about what's different between men and women--and, like many of Blake Edwards' movies, it finds danger in potential delight, humor in what most disturbs us.

It's an edgy comedy, almost nerve-racking. Its protagonist, a fiercely chauvinist man reincarnated as a woman, is the ultimate in alienated characters: divorced from his/her own body. A callous high-rolling New York ad executive whose hobby is serial sexual affairs, "Switch's" Steve Brooks (Perry King) is murdered by three infuriated mistresses, then sent back to Earth as a woman, to somehow redeem him/herself. Chastened by God, pursued by the devil, looking at the world through different eyes and chromosomes, the new "Amanda" Brooks (Ellen Barkin) discovers what most of us never do: life from the opposite side.

This is not one of Edwards' funniest movies. Perhaps in deference to the theme, he seems to have deliberately eschewed chances for his specialty: long, sustained slapstick sequences. "Switch" is done in classic Hollywood romantic comedy style, Lubitsch-style, McCarey-style, with numerous intricately choreographed set-pieces.

It's simpler, pared-down: the equivalent of clear, unflowery speech. Shot mostly on sound stages with very few exterior scenes--street noises keep wafting in from an endless succession of opened windows--it doesn't even give us much of a feel of its posh Manhattan milieu, which is \o7 all \f7 most movies give us these days. Though there is an elegance and effortless grace about "Switch," there are things you can quarrel with, in Edwards' script: the premise, the development, the fact that Amanda turns to his/her own murderess for aid and tutoring

But "Switch" has something very interesting: a sense of modern confusion about sexual roles, social masks. There's honest emotion and questioning in its stylized, movie-movie surfaces. It's a post-Sexual Revolution comedy about trying to find a sense of responsibility--or empathy or humanism--in the midst of sexual chaos.

By imagining a man suddenly switched into a woman's body, a man who has done almost nothing with women but exploit them sexually, Edwards opens up the floodgates of gender and psychology, lets his richly talented cast (Jimmy Smits, JoBeth Williams, Lorraine Bracco, Tony Roberts) swirl around in the eddies. At the vortex is Ellen Barkin's Amanda, a truly original, sometimes hair-raising performance.

There's a ferocity about Barkin's acting that, in certain roles, makes scenes around her crackle with danger. In "Switch," Edwards uses it to the hilt. He shapes the whole movie around Barkin: her wounded eyes, angular body movements and crooked, sneaky little grin. He lets her release an incredible flood of pent-up hostility and rage.

Few actors in a non-villain role would take machismo to these lengths: sneering and cracking their fellow actors in the groin, repeatedly triggering barroom brawls, smooching women voraciously and sweeping up their hands with a cavalier love' em and leave 'em flourish. If they were this macho, they'd be laughed at--which is exactly what Edwards and Barkin want.

Barkin actually convinces us there's a man trapped down there somewhere--and a specific \o7 type \f7 of man, one who exaggerates super-masculine traits. Amanda's spread-legged sitting posture, the bemused, lecherous way she paws her own body and peers at her own breasts have a hilarious accuracy. So, at least the first few times, does the stumbling tenacity with which she teeters around in high heels.

"Switch" has a lot of antecedents: not just the George Axelrod play "Goodbye Charlie," which Vincente Minnelli filmed with Debbie Reynolds as the man-turned-woman, but movies like "Tootsie," "All of Me" and the 1940 Hal Roach version of Thorne Smith's body-swap farce "Turnabout." And Edwards holds his own with the best of them. He has a keener eye for sexual gamesmanship than most of his forebears, less inhibitions.

"Switch" lets him expose the myriad ways women can be demeaned in the modern corporate world, indict men for their part in the great sexual conquest con-game. Yet there is something thin or forced in part of the movie's premise that all women hate callous, womanizing studs, that Amanda, charged by heaven to find one female who genuinely liked Steve, will tend to come up empty. Unfortunately, in real life, callous, womanizing studs \o7 are \f7 liked by some women. If they weren't, they wouldn't be able to callously womanize.

In the end, "Switch" (rated R for sex and language) isn't a top-grade Edwards movie--though it shares with his best, a sparkling directorial panache and charm, a charge of risque humanism, a wizardly delight in body language.

The movie will divide audiences. Some will over-fixate on the script flaws: Edwards, a brilliant director, is sometimes an erratic writer. I suspect that women, generally, will like it more than men will. But if "Switch" makes any viewers nervous, it's a twinge that's earned. Edwards uses Joni Mitchell's idealist/cynical song "Both Sides Now" as his film's anthem. And it fits: Seeing life from both sides is one of life's hardest, most crucial, lessons.

'Switch'

Ellen Barkin Amanda Brooks

Jimmy Smits Walter Stone

JoBeth Williams Margo Brofman

Lorraine Bracco Sheila Faxton

An HBO/ Cinema Plus, L.P. presentation released by Warner Brors. Director/screenplay Blake Edwards. Producer Tony Adams. Cinematographer Dick Bush. Editor Robert Pergament. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Henry Mancini. Production design Rodger Maus. Art director Sandy Getzler. Set decorator John Franco Jr. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (sex, language).

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