All’s well that ends well in the remake of Freaky Friday, starring Jamie Lee Curtis as Tess Coleman, an overworked and hyperactive psychiatrist and mother of two who is about to be remarried. Now, Freaky is not a bad film. It has some laughs, and a happy, if sappy, ending that will satisfy viewers’ desires for the appearance of reconciliation and domestic unity. It is, however, the most over praised film of the summer. The film opened to rave reviews, with just under a 90-percent positive rating from the reviews culled on the indispensable movie website, Rotten Tomatoes.
Perhaps it was the excessive expectation based on the nearly uniform praise for the film that abetted my disappointment; or perhaps it was the predictability of every “twist” in the film; or perhaps it was the film’s uncertain hovering between a pure, light comedy and a message movie; yet again, perhaps it was the clichéd characterizations of mom and daughter, who wallow in self-pity throughout most of the film and then are rapidly transformed just in time for the ending. The film ends with a kind of saccharine seriousness that, I fear, far too many viewers will think is “so cute.”
Early in the film, tensions between mother and teen daughter, Annabell (Lindsay Lohan), escalate over dinner at a Chinese restaurant. The elderly owner of the restaurant decides to inject a little Eastern wisdom into the lives of mother and daughter by feeding them magical fortune cookies. They eat the cookies and wake up the next morning having swapped bodies; at which point Jamie Lee Curtis, whose body is now inhabited by her daughter’s soul, looks at her face in the mirror and issues the best line of the film. In horror she shouts: “I’m the crypt keeper!” It is indeed a good line and there are others. The film’s best scenes involve excellent physical humor from Curtis, who revels in the opportunity to play a teenage girl.
But there are also issues and scenes that might make parents attending with kids uneasy. For example, the mother is remarrying yet no mention is made of the absent father, who he is, or why he’s absent until we’re well into the story. Then there is only the most cursory of references to his having died, but this comes in the midst of a blunt argument between mother and daughter. Now, an adult viewer can see what is going on here — the tensions between mother and daughter are largely if not exclusively due to their failure to come to terms with the death of the father. This is addressed explicitly at the very end. But up to that point, there is likely to be serious confusion in the mind of young viewers. Moreover, the film dwells a bit too much on the relationship between the daughter’s would-be boyfriend and the daughter while she inhabits the mother’s body. Of course, the point is that he is really attracted to the personality of the daughter, a personality that the daughter found herself unable to express until she was able to inhabit an adult body. But as for the boyfriend himself, he thinks he’s falling for the about-to-be-married mother of a female classmate. The scenes are not salacious but they would cause less discomfort were they played clearly and lightly for laughs; instead, the incessant injection of meaning into these scenes lends greater seriousness to the boy’s affection for an older woman than is necessary or comically effective.
One explanation of Freaky Friday’s success is the desperate hunger for films that families can attend and enjoy together. And Freaky is certainly better than Johnny English but it ranks well beneath Nemo or Seabiscuit and far below Holes, a fine family film from the spring that is destined to be a minor classic.
The problem, as I hinted above, lies at the very core of the film, in the characterizations of, and the relationship between, mom and daughter. The two remain self-absorbed and mutually accusing throughout most of the film, “stuck,” as the daughter inside mom puts it, “in this suckfest.” The film is never quite that. But it would have been a better film, and much funnier, if the filmmakers had made the mom and daughter more human and more sympathetic, as is the case with the characters in Holes, or just utterly clueless, as is the case, for example, in an older comedy such as Raising Arizona.
How long can Hollywood continue to play off of the self-absorbed teenager and distracted parent routine? Indefinitely, I fear, given the critical praise and popular success of Freaky Friday.
— Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.