Once trapped in your house for 18 months in a row due to a global pandemic, you need to find new ways to entertain yourself. Over the past year and a half, some people have become interested in home improvements. Others learned to bake. (By the way, you should try my chocolate mint cakes. They taste like Andes Mints!)
With closed theaters, my wife and I took up our time rewatching movies from our childhood. We watched Hocus Pocus one night and License to drive the next. Some of these films ended up as topics in a column I wrote during the first months of the pandemic. Then one day we fell over The other way around, a 1988 comedy about a father and son (played by Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage) swapping corpses. The film does not have the greatest reputation. It brought in a paltry $ 13 million at the box office and has 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I honestly can not tell you what inspired us to turn it on that night.
But we both loved that. And it inspired us to start watching other body-changing comedies. Pretty fast it was all we watched. We binged each version of Freaky Friday in a weekend. We discovered a very strange example from 1940 called Turnabout, where a husband and wife change places, but retain their original voices – so that the husband now sounds like the wife and vice versa. The more we saw, the more I realized not only how much I enjoy that kind of film – but how they are in some ways the ideal expression of the film’s unique qualities as an art form.
This is not to say that every body exchange comedy is perfect or even good. My wife and I have seen some bad ones over the last year. Many of the successes of these films depend on the quality of the performers and their ability to adopt a completely different person and physique than their own. Some actors are simply not ready for the task. For example, Zac Efron made a completely convincing young Matthew Perry in 17 Again and as a result, the film simply did not work. (Had Zac Efron ever seen an episode of Friends? Had he ever heard Matthew Perry speak? Could he be worse for that part?) I would not want a screening of Hot Chick with Rob Schneider starring on my worst enemy.
There are occasional exceptions, but critics tend to hate these movies. Siskel & Ebert gave two thumbs down to As a father as a son, in which Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore play a father and son who exchange corpses after accidentally ingesting a magic liquid. Now, this is definitely not the best body swap comedy, but Siskel and Ebert despised this film that criticizes the plot, the performances and even the actor’s accents. (They wanted to know why Dudley Moore still spoke with a British accent, even though Kirk Cameron’s brain was inside his body, which … is a reasonable point.)
“This is the decline of American film,” Gene Siskel declared. “They just came up with an idea at a history conference – ‘Hey, let’s get two guys to switch. Someone who is old who will appeal to the older audience, Dudley Moore. One who is young, the child Kirk Cameron. He gets the teens in. ‘- well I will tell you, they are not going to get anyone in. Siskel also compared Cameron and Moore’s performances to “bums on the street”. The film later ended on the critics’ episode “Worst of 1987”.
Again, As a father as a son is does not one of the body’s finest examples. But it’s interesting to hear the film described as a testament to the downfall of American cinema, when I tend to find that the big (or even half-decent) body swaps embody (sorry) exactly what Roger Ebert himself always claimed to love by the movies.
Here is, for example, how Ebert described the value of film in his speech at the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:
Film is the most powerful empathy machine in all art forms. When I go to a great movie, I can live the lives of others for a while. I can walk in other people’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different faith.
Body swaps distill the empathetic subtitle during all movies into powerful, moving and funny text. In these films, it is not only the audience that lives someone else’s life for a while; the characters themselves do too. The literally step into the shoes of others and discover what it feels like to be a member of another sex (Your name) or race (Watermelon man). In most body swaps, the physical transformation is eventually reversed, but the emotional transformation that follows is almost always permanent. Stiff adults learn to loosen up, as in The other way around. Irresponsible children come to understand their parents’ pressures and problems or enjoy their childhood while still having it, as in Large.
Given the fact that you can count on these hours of life and epiphanies appearing in some form in almost any body exchange, you can argue that these films tend to be formal. But body swaps are also a genre that only works to its full potential in movies. While there are body exchange novels – The other way aroundfor example, is loosely based on a book of the same name from 1882 by Thomas Anstey Guthrie – they lack the element of performance that makes body swap movies really special. No amount of floral prose could evoke the magic of Jennifer Garner, who appeared as a teenager in Continues on 30.
A great writer can create a science fiction novel just as compelling as anything in film or television. The same goes for thrillers or westerns or cops. But no writer could fully capture what happens on screen when Steven Martin and Lily Tomlin fight for control of the former’s genitals during a scene in All of me.
These scenes are wide and silly, but I have to admit I have found All of me, Continues on 30, The other way around, and many other body exchanges comforting and even occasionally uplifting during this tumultuous period of my life. Because they focus so strongly on characters who come to identify with the experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs of others, they affirm values like empathy that are depressingly absent in many modern America. They remind us that people can change, grow and get better.
So the next time you despair over the state of affairs, put on a body swap movie. It can just restore your faith in humanity. In addition, they sometimes have Steve Martin fighting Lily Tomlin to control his junk. If you ask me, there is no better example of “pure cinema” than that.
Every Live Saturday Night Movies, ranked from worst to best
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