It’s good to see Jamie Lee Curtis acting like a 15-year-old. Always generous and witty, whether beating off Michael Meyers, double-crossing Kevin Kline, or stripping for Arnold, she alleviates, somewhat, the ordeal of watching yet another body-swap comedy (in a fair universe, Rob Schneider’s last outing would have been a final blow). Though Freaky Friday doesn’t pretend to be original (like the 1977 film starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster, it is based on the popular book by Mary Rodgers), it also doesn’t offer much in the way of new insights into this most peculiar of subgenres.
Tess (Curtis) begins as a stereotypically overachieving single mom. She leaves the house each day with her PDA and cell phone already whirring as she hurriedly bye-byes her kids, aspiring rocker Anna (Lindsay Lohan) and vexatious little brother Harry (Ryan Malgarini). Something of a celebrity psychiatrist (she’s written a bestseller with her picture on the cover), Tess is infinitely tolerant with her needy patients and adoring fiancé Ryan (Mark Harmon), but has less and less time for Anna. When Anna tries, however awkwardly, to voice her anxieties (“You’re ruining my life!”), mom only waves her out the door: “Make good grades!”
This basic set-up takes too long, as the film details their disparate, daily travails: Tess argues with the caterer and Anna’s harassed by her English teacher (Stephen Tobolowsky), who irrationally encourages her to study for the Honors Exam while failing her weekly papers. Tess schedules a root canal and Anna plays loud guitar with the band she’s formed with her best friend Maddie (Christina Vidal). Not only does this band sound impossibly adept when they rehearse in Anna’s garage, they also, by way of underlining mother-daughter conflict, have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play at the House of Blues… on the same night as Tess’ rehearsal dinner.
All this leads to the body exchange, engineered by a character named only Pei Pei’s mother (Lucille Soong); the put-upon Pei Pei (played by Rosalind Chao) runs a Chinese restaurant where the white folks feel comfortable enough to act out the most obnoxious family dramas. Her mother, tired of this spectacle, casts a mysterious fortune cookie spell on Anna and Tess, an event accompanied by “Oriental” soundtrack music and an earthquake effect. And so, once again, well heeled Caucasians who’ve lost touch with “traditional” values are serviced by the inscrutable local Others (or, as Anna observes, “It was some strange Asian voodoo”).
As disconcerting as the trigger may be, the trade is surely welcome. Tess-as-Anna faces classroom questions on Hamlet, a Heather-ish classmate, and detention (she’s quick to figure out that she can charge a makeover to her credit cards, emerging with a slightly less dated haircut and outfit (truth be told, she still looks corny); at the same time, Anna-as-Tess must grapple with her mother’s uptight wardrobe, desperate patients, a surprise television talk show appearance, and the fact that she can’t eat French fries. Not to mention her uncontrollable need to pull down Maddie’s shirt to cover her navel.
As each begins to appreciate the diurnal difficulties of the other’s life, the most complicated issue Tess and Anna face — by far — concerns their designated romantic interests. In the case of Anna-as-Tess, this means she’s putting off Ryan’s efforts to kiss and fondle his fiancée (indeed, the upcoming wedding, only two days away, creates much anxiety). Meanwhile, Tess-as-Anna is mostly annoyed by the attentions of motorcycle-riding, shaggy-haired high school heartthrob Jake (Chad Michael Murray).
So far, so cute. The situation is complicated exponentially when Anna-as-Tess spends some time with Jake, whereupon they realize their shared interests and tastes (He: “What do you think of the White Stripes?” She: “Get a bass player!”). Suddenly struck by a massive crush on Anna’s supercool mother, Jake starts acting out, giving her a ride home on his bike and serenading her from the sidewalk. While Anna-as-Tess fumes that her mom is stealing her boyfriend, even the exceedingly patient Ryan starts to wonder what’s going on.
Director Mark Waters’ first film, the weird and energetic comedy The House of Yes (1997), offered what might be called a diametrically opposed view on family structures, that is, families are designed to destroy their offspring. In Freaky Friday, Tess and Anna learn practical lessons from their switch, perhaps most importantly, that each has her own set of pressures and does her well-intentioned best to cope with one crisis after another. Such understanding comes through bodily experience — being looked at, spoken to, and apprehended by their friends, associates, and relatives. Thus, each must not only sympathize with the other, but must also renegotiate relationships with everyone else. So, Ryan expresses his appreciation of Anna to Ann-as-Tess, who in turn can express her generous wish for her mom’s happiness.
This stems in part from the fortune cookies’ “directive,” that the bodies might be re-swapped only when Tess and Anna become wholly altruistic when it comes to one another: “Let’s try to be selfless!” cries Tess-as-Anna, or maybe it’s Anna-as-Tess. In fact, as this directive compresses the film’s “moral lesson” into the shape of, well, a fortune cookie fortune, it also underlines the film’s thematic contortions, necessary to accommodate the (apparently unkillable) body swap subgenre. The complication that the movie can’t quite negotiate has to do with the ways that bodies shape experience and perception, but also compromise and even preclude connections, as all bodies become objects to be read, interpreted, and imposed upon. Mother and daughter come together only when they give up their belief that their own readings of the world are accurate. (Indeed, this very complication — so dense and so provocative — might explain the subgenre’s stubborn longevity.)
At the same time, Freaky Friday is a kids’ movie, and if it does nothing else in the world but provide Jamie Lee Curtis the opportunity to perform a Clipse rap on Jay Leno’s show (which she did on 6 August), then it has done all the work it needs to do.