After helming the disastrously unfunny “Dirty Grandpa,” director Dan Mazer returns with a more quiet and small-scale comedy than his tenure in shocking and gross-out humor. Mazer is mostly known for his Academy Award-winning “Borat” screenplay, and his collaborations with Sacha Baron Cohen are the funniest things he’s ever done. In The Exchange, he and writer Tim Long satirize Canadian culture in a comedy that’s both extremely funny and terribly predictable. Long seems to tell his own story (or not, but Ed Oxenbould, “The Visit,” plays him) as a Canadian teen in the mid-1980s longing (no pun intended) for a best friend. He lives in the (small) town of Hobart, Ontario, where everybody knows each other.
After his French teacher talks to him about a cultural exchange program, Tim finally believes he’ll get a friend that understands him, as he deeply loves French cinema and culture (his favorite film, oddly enough, is Jean Pierre-Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge”). However, once his exchange partner, Stéphane Belmadi (Avan Jogia, “The Artist’s Wife”) arrives, he’s exactly the opposite of what Tim hoped. Instead Stéphane is a sex-crazed, culturally illiterate, and overall, inappropriately conducted individual, which prompts the equally culturally illiterate citizens of Hobart to perpetuate racist stereotypes towards him. Tim immediately regrets enrolling in the cultural exchange program, thinking Stéphane will ruin the little social life he has left. But, of course, that won’t be the case as they’ll bond over one another and develop a friendship that will last a lifetime.
Living in a secluded town filled with almost every Canadian stereotype possible allows Mazer and Long to craft a rather scathing portrait of living in Brian Mulroney’s Canada, one that reeked of prejudices against other nations and systemic racism all in the guise of a “Canada-first” approach. The film’s Mulroney voter is represented by Justin Hartley (“This Is Us” TV series), who plays gym teacher/sheriff (it’s a small town after all!) Gary Rothbauer. At all costs, he wants to assert Canada’s cultural dominance. He will do just about anything to paint Stéphane as a foreigner who doesn’t belong by using racist insults or framing him for alleged “crimes” against the town’s emblem, the white squirrel. Hartley’s performance as Rothbauer is an entertaining hybrid mix of Letterkenny meets Super Troopers, which results in an actor having quite literally the time of his life playing an individual that only cares about himself. He’s so egotistical that he’ll even push a shoe store owner to suicide as he tries to get an even more discounted rate of an already discounted shoe. There isn’t a single scene in which the viewer sympathizes with him: His mustache and glasses scream “ME!” while his boisterous demeanor and how he acts towards everyone maintain it.
It’s a shame that Ed Oxenbould’s lead performance as Tim Long doesn’t really match Hartley’s fun. Oxenbould tries to bring the same charm as a teenager in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Still, it doesn’t really work here, as Tim is more of an introvert than Alexander. He wants to be embarrassed by Stéphane’s presence, but it feels more nonchalant than anything else. There’s almost no reaction elicited from him as Stéphane shows him some of his porn instead of appreciating Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge,” which is odd considering how much he likes the movie. Or, speaking of “Le Cercle Rouge,” when he becomes embarrassed in front of his class, thinking he’s showing the film, but the VHS was swapped with a home movie Stéphane made of him as Tim describes his love to Brenda (Jayli Wolf, “Run Woman Run”), there are almost no reactions from him. And yet, Stéphane quasi-ruined his life as the entire school thinks he’s now a moron.
Jogia adopts a carefree attitude as Stéphane, which allows him to soar farther than Oxenbould. Whenever they’re both on screen, your focus isn’t on the main character but his exchange partner. You never know what he’s going to do, which makes some sequences funnier than I anticipated, but that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t have its fair share of predictability. Long will obviously get embarrassed by Stéphane’s (quite funny, if we’re honest with each other) antics until they start to form a bond. That “bond,” however, becomes broken when Long is embarrassed by Stéphane, which will cause them to drift apart. You’ll likely know what happens at the end, without fail, only by reading these lines. Mazer doesn’t do anything to subvert the audience’s expectations and would rather craft a carefree and safe comedy for audiences built on interesting character dynamics. Whenever a film tells the story of a small town, you’d want the town’s characters to be colorful and their dynamics strong. Luckily for Mazer, The Exchange absolutely excels on that front.
The characters make The Exchange a rather entertaining comedy, fueled with two great performances from Josh Hartley and Avan Jogia. Hartley represents everything wrong with Canadian Tories, whereas Jogia’s laid back demeanor helps him reach hilarious comedic heights as Stéphane. The comedy is sharp and laugh-out-loud hilarious at times, which pales in comparison to what Mazer did in “Dirty Grandpa.” In fact, this outing almost makes up for his mishaps with “Dirty Grandpa,” especially after he co-wrote the script for the legendary “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” His next film is a soft reboot of “Home Alone,” set to release on Disney+ later this year. If he respects Chris Columbus’ classic tone and inventive traps, it should be a home run for him and coupled with this may well propel him to new and exciting heights as a comedic filmmaker.