Switch (1991)

reviewed by
Janet M. Lafler


                                    SWITCH
                       A film review by Janet M. Lafler
                        Copyright 1991 Janet M. Lafler

SWTICH is a sexual role-reversal comedy directed by Blake Edwards and starring Ellen Barkin which has funny and insightful moments, but also has a great many holes.

The premise is simple: Steve Brooks is an inveterate womanizer hated by women everywhere. After being killed by three former girlfriends he lands in Purgatory, where he is told that he is a borderline case; he has done enough good to be eligible for heaven, but has behaved so horribly to women that he's also a candidate for hell. To resolve the difficulty, he's sent back to earth to find one female who likes him. Thanks to a suggestion from the Devil, he goes back as a woman.

The bulk of the movie deals with Steve (in his female persona, Amanda) trying to get by as a woman for long enough to find a woman who likes him. As Amanda, Barkin turns in a great performance. Tottering on her high heels, tugging at her unfamiliar female finery, walking, talking and gesturing in masculine fashion, she performs just broadly enough to be funny without being ridiculous.

The movie deals with the various possibilities inherent in this switch with uneven success. Steve's reaction to his female body, including his persistent habit of acting as if it were someone else's body, is well-handled, and often quite funny. ("Did you get a look at my legs?" s/he asks best friend Walter, played by Jimmy Smits.) His sexual adjustment is also handled well; there is no easy way for him to slide into either lesbianism or heterosexuality as a woman.

There are problems, though. I found myself wondering whether a man who had just turned into a woman would dress like that. There's no reason that Steve/Amanda immediately has to put on four-inch stiletto heels. Then there's the question of just what's good about Steve Brooks. Walter mentions that he's done many kind things, but we're never told what they are, and I find it hard to understand how someone who's supposedly so good could really be such a jerk to women. All women. (Either his mother's dead or she hates him too; at any rate, she's never mentioned.) And there's at least one glaring continuity error. (Hint: I don't know anyone whose hair could grow eight inches in five months.)

On a more serious and subtle level, the movie-makers seem to be assuming that spending a few days or months as a woman can make a man really understand what it is like to be a woman, a premise I find unconvincing. (A similar transformation occurs in TOOTSIE.) Only a few days after the switch, Amanda complains about how an ad doesn't really reflect women's experience; in fact, once Steve becomes a woman he pretty quickly begins spouting feminist rhetoric. While I would like to believe that any man who woke up one day in a woman's body would become a feminist, there are limits to what makes sense. When Amanda starts holding forth on date rape, it doesn't ring true. In the end, the movie's feminist pieties strike me as rather cheap. As a comedy, this movies succeeds, but when it tries to get serious about the differences between men's and women's experiences, it's often frustrating and shallow.

SWITCH is an engaging movie, worth going to see simply for Barkin's performance. (Supporting performances are competent, but not exciting.) Pacing falters somewhat in the last third of the movie, but in general Barkin's energy keeps things moving.

Janet Lafler
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