Blake Edwards has thought long and hard about what it...

May 10, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Blake Edwards has thought long and hard about what it means to be male and female and many of his films turn on the passions of gender or even of gender confusion, such as "Victor/Victoria."

So his new "Switch" is a summing up of all this intellectual labor. And guess what he's learned?

He's learned nothing.

"Switch" will probably be a hit, because it's quite funny, particularly in the physical business that Edwards, a gagmeister of the old school, has found for an especially game Ellen Barkin. Barkin is the best thing about the movie, particularly in its first and funniest half. (A line about a fur coat may be the funniest line in a movie in years.)

But the film is idiotic. While attempting to be cultured and liberal in its interpretation of the relationship wars, it is in the end (and in the beginning and the middle) just another trip through stereotypeland, where all men are macho bruisers whose every word is a cunning ploy aimed at nudging tonight's victim toward the sack, and all women are conniving bitches using their bodies to get what they want in life. The human race, in short, is comprised entirely of rapists and whores.

Perry King plays a New York advertising man of particularly loutish disposition who uses babes like Kleenex: He fills them with bodily fluid and then throws them away. For his efforts, three of his victims decide to murder him. In purgatory, Mr. and Ms. God give him a shot at heaven if he can return to Earth and get one woman to actually like him. The devil pitches in with a proposal that he be sent back as a woman -- a dish.

Thus Barkin arrives, a female of curvaceous enticement and several yards worth of great leg, but a guy's brain and world view. The cleverest idea turns on an elemental, even childish reality -- that this guy will be turned on by the great body he finds himself in. So Barkin keeps peeking down her own blouse or up her own dress, tickled pink and simply overwhelmed with the riches.

Barkin also has great fun struggling with high heels, skirts and male oglers. The first six or seven thousand times that Edwards has her punch out or trip a smart guy, it's quite funny. Once we get beyond 10,000, however, the gag gets tiresome.

The problem with the movie -- sadly typical of Edwards' wildly overrated work -- is that it goes nowhere. It has nothing to say, but simply bumbles from situation to situation, relying on gags and shtick for energy. None of the details are worked out: The woman Amanda fits into the lout Steve's life without a social security number, a credit card, a driver's license. If Edwards wants to finesse that, fine. But then why does he involve her with a legal system whose natural machinations would uncover her odd origins?

The key relationship -- between Barkin and former best-buddy Jimmy Smits, in a role that will not make him a major movie star -- just sits there. And the film actually verges on being offensive when Barkin-the-woman manages to seduce a lesbian to gain a business advantage, where King-the-man had failed. Lorraine Bracco is almost unrecognizable in this role, and everything that made her interesting -- her vivid New York identity, her dark ethnic good looks, her power and her vulnerability -- has been milled away until she's bland as Tupperware.

When, late in the going, Barkin-the-man begins to become Barkin-the-woman and issues an encomium to motherhood or, worse, bravely faces a health crisis associated with childbirth, it feels almost wholly ridiculous. Someone once said the key to success was sincerity and that once you learned how to fake that, you'd be OK. Edwards proves the falsity of the statement; he has never learned to fake sincerity, and he's a big success.


Starring Ellen Barkin and Jimmy Smits.

Directed by Blake Edwards.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

LD: Funny lines, great moves by Barkin don't save 'Switch' from idiocy

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