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‘Switch’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 10, 1991

Why can't a man be more like a woman? According to Blake Edwards's "Switch," it's all a matter of bodacious ta-tas and inside plumbing. So if it's subtle, insightful satire you're after, don't look to this coarse farce. It's simply more vulgar, insidiously homophobic Victor/Victoriana from the sexually confused writer-director.

"Switch" is a second adaptation of the George Axelrod play "Goodbye, Charlie" (the first was directed by Vincente Minnelli in 1964 and starred Tony Curtis and Debbie Reynolds). A creaky property about a womanizer who is reincarnated as a woman, in Edwards's hands it has become a carnival of crotch-grabbing. Under a thin guise of feminism, there lurks a Sinatra-generation, barefoot-and-pregnant misogyny.

Ellen Barkin stars as Amanda-nee-Steve Brooks, the subject of the celestial sex change, a part she plays with the gusto of a beach-storming Marine. After the loathsome Steve (Perry King) is murdered by an angry lover, he is just about to relieve himself -- is there urination after death? -- when he notices that something is now missing. Horror of horrors, the Divine Beings have sent him back to earth as a leggy blond bombshell. And if he wants to go to Heaven, he must find at least one woman who liked him.

"Tootsie" taught its hero a lesson about the pros and cons of womanhood. It dealt with real-life issues such as job discrimination, sexual harassment at the office and single motherhood. "Switch" looks at how hard it is for a former lothario to keep from fondling his own breasts. And what a pair they are too. Heh, heh.

Barkin plays Amanda not as Amanda, but as Steve, and the result is a rambunctious lampoon of male mannerisms. But these are the grossest of all possible manly quirks. Barkin, falling out of her dresses like a ripening bud, chomps cigars, ogles butts, hikes her drawers and brawls in bars. When taunted by a construction worker, she slugs him one. Actually, crossing the street is a more creative comeback.

Steve's best friend in life, Walter (Jimmy Smits), gives in to his lust for his old buddy's new body, and somewhere a bunny dies. There is one good thing about being a woman after all: babies. That's all well and good, of course, were it not for all the other awful realities Edwards finds in being one with the distaff community. Among those he cites are PMS, menopause, long hair and applying makeup.

It's clear that Edwards misunderstands women. (Or maybe he's just envious.) None of the women is favorably portrayed, though JoBeth Williams is wonderfully feisty as a society slut, Margo, who, with two other old flames, cooks up the scheme to murder Steve. A mink slung over her shoulder, she is asked by an animal-rights activist, "Do you know how many animals died to make that coat?" She growls back, "Do you know how many animals I had to sleep with to get this coat?"

Edwards reserves his cheapest, most hackneyed shot for the movie's lone homosexual, whom Amanda refers to as Margo's "phobic, fag psychic." Only Walter, played with a sweet manliness by Smits, is treated with any dignity. He is also the one thing Edwards gets right about what women like. The best thing about the movie is the shot of Smits's comely bum.

"Switch" is rated R for sensuality and language.

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