Woke ‘Exchange’ Can’t Capture ‘80s Magic

Canadian-set comedy brims with literal lectures between modest chuckles

There’s a reason why the best ‘80s movies endure.

They’re joyful, creative and, best of all, free of the lectures suffocating too much content today. Ferris Bueller didn’t scold us about the patriarchy. He took a day off, one we’ll never forget.

Audiences today crave that escapism like never before, and Reagan-era classics provide just that.

“The Exchange” may be set in the 1980s, but the woke comedy cares more about wagging a finger at audiences then entertaining them.

The Exchange Trailer #1 (2021) | Movieclips Indie

Tim is a loser’s loser in the grand “Revenge of the Nerds” tradition. The Canadian kid, played by a smug Ed Oxenbould, lives in the cold and impoverished town of Hobart. It’s like Small Town USA, complete with a love for local culture, which essentially means the annual White Squirrel celebrations.

He decides to shake up his life, and maybe make a friend in the process, by enrolling in a foreign exchange student program. Surely whatever kid appears on his doorstep will know more about French new wave cinema than the buffoons he calls classmates.

Turns out Stephane (an excellent Avan Jogia) is clueless about art and culture. He loves to smoke, wear inappropriate clothing and watch porn. Lots of porn. The charismatic exchange student is an instant hit at Tim’s high school, the final blow to the lad’s ego.

Only the locals have their suspicions about Stephane, mostly because he’s of Arab decent.

See where this is going?

It’s informative to know the film’s creative DNA. Director Dan Mazer is a frequent collaborator with “Borat” star Sacha Baron Cohen, who loves to mock small towns in his art. It’s precisely what we see here, a stunning lack of empathy atop a parade of lectures about the locals’ tiny minds and endless racism.

Yes, actual lectures.

“The Exchange” opens with some promise, from the fresh setting to Mazer’s knack for visually slick set pieces. They’re not very funny, though, with the bulk of the modest laughs coming from screenplay asides. The ham-fisted plot devices only make it harder to connect with the storyline.

The men of Hobart are almost uniformly dumb and/or ignorant, while the women are far more progressive and wise. It’s a comedy trope that can work with, yes, empathy, but that’s in short supply here.

We know Tim and Stephane will clash at first but later connect on a deeper level. That’s the entire template on display, not anything close to a spoiler. Yet their initial bond is tepid at best, and their friendship never finds an emotional groove. It hurts that while Stephane is endlessly charismatic Tim is dour and distrusting.

Film nerds are losers by default, but they’re often lovably so. It’s hard to root for Tim, alas.

The film doesn’t have a love of the ‘80s, either the actual period or the films from that era. It’s here to tsk-tsk unwoke characters who need to get with the times. Don’t they realize this is set in 1986?

“The Exchange” is an angry comedy from start to finish, from the abuse hurled at our hero to his own posture towards Stefan. The supporting characters are equally inept, cruel or just racist. “This Is Us” star Justin Hartley is the biggest offender, an ex-hockey player who bullies everyone in his path.

FAST FACT: Avan Jogia, the standout performer in “The Exchange,” is 29 years old in real life.

Every ’80s movie needs a good villain, but there are too many to choose from here. Is it Tim’s clueless Dad? The local parade organizer who can’t stop being offensive to one of the few nonwhite citizens?

“Just remember. Most people are not really bad or really stupid. They’re just doing the best that they can,” Tim’s mother (Jennifer Irwin) instructs him at one point.

It’s like the movie’s condescending mission statement. Borat would be proud.

The film’s third act slows to a crawl, the minor comedy moments disappear and we get speeches about not treating others based on their appearance or country of origin.

“You get the point,” Tim says late in the film after another woke lecture. Call it the year’s cinematic understatement.

In 30 years a new generation will savor Ferris Bueller and other ‘80s gems. By then, a film like “The Exchange” will be an afterthought, if that.

HiT or Miss: “The Exchange” offers fleeting laughs but copious lectures on the evils of bigotry.

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