Director Dan Mazer edges further into the mainstream with The Exchange, an update on all those Michael Cera/Jon Heder-flavoured films from about 15/20 years ago – the geek shall inherit the earth.
Tim (Ed Oxenbould) is the Canadian nerd and self-styled teen intellectual with a love of films with subtitles, existentialist novels by Camus etc, who signs on to take part in a French exchange program. What he’s hoping for is someone “sophisticated, smart and worldly”… because French. What he gets is Stéphane (Avan Jogia), a jockish guy in bleach-look jeans who wants to talk about sex all the time.
Tim wears glasses, is despised for his pretensions by his classmates and can’t admit he has a thing for weird friend Brenda (Jayli Wolf). Stéphane wears cologne, is gregarious almost to a fault, and has no trouble with girls.
A familiar, but very well done odd-couple comedy is the result, with slightly cosy/claustrophobic smalltown Canadian life in the 1980s nicely caught by director Mazer, who lays The Cure, The Smiths, Run DMC all over the soundtrack just in case you’d not twigged.
Mazer co-wrote most of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G/Borat stuff and knows his way around the comedy of discomfiture. Sometimes this works, as it does here, and did also in the Robert De Niro/Zac Efron comedy Dirty Grandpa. Sometimes it doesn’t, as in I Give It a Year, a mismatched-couple comedy full of funny lines but so sour that it was hard to like.
But Mazer isn’t writing here. It’s Tim Long, who’s done stints with The Simpsons and used to be a gag writer for David Letterman, so also knows his way around a gag. He was also, wouldn’t you know it, the producer on the animated TV spinoff of Napoleon Dynamite, a clear influence.
The two leads do exactly what they need to do – Oxenbould is a convincing nerd, Jogia is both likeable and amusingly irritating as Stéphane – and Jayli Wolf is something of a secret weapon as Brenda, both funny and sympathetic as the girl who shouts out whatever she’s thinking and who makes up terrible songs on the hoof.
The plot revolves around home and school, as these things tend to. At school there is one of those thick, self-regarding gym teachers (Justin Hartley); at home Tim’s exasperated parents (Paul Braunstein, Jennifer Irwin, both doing different variations on the comedy eyeroll) struggle with their “different” son – “gay” reckon the Beavis and Butt-head-influenced school bullies.
All that’s needed is some kooky animated overlays here and there – there are none, for the avoidance of doubt – and all the boxes would be ticked.
Stéphane’s influence on Tim is benign but takes a long time to have its effect (the length of the movie, in fact). He is a male version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the exotic creature (first named by critic Nathan Rabin, I think) who makes everything right by shaking it all up. He’s also “different” because he has a brown skin. Where exactly his parents are from is never specified but if you were going to pick fault with this film it’s its decision to bother with the whole race angle at all… especially when there are brown people in it already – the members of the Crowfoot tribe at the story’s periphery who get barely any dramatic purchase.
Can things be both dry and sweet? Wine, maybe not. But that’s what The Exchange is. A funny, almost corny, very nicely played comedy in which everyone concerned comes out a little better than they went in.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021