The Body Swap Comedy is the perfect genre of cinema
When you’re stuck in your home for 18 straight months due to a global pandemic, you need to find new ways to be entertained. Over the past year and a half, some people have taken an interest in home renovations. Others have learned to cook. (By the way, you have to try my chocolate mint cookies. They taste like Andean mint!)
With the cinemas closed, my wife and I spent our time revisiting the films from our childhood. We watched Hocus pocus one night and Driver’s license the following. Some of these films ended up being the subject of a column that I wrote in the early months of the pandemic. Then one day we stumbled across Vice versa, a 1988 comedy about a father and son (played by Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage) swapping their bodies. The film does not have the greatest reputation. It grossed $ 13 million at the box office and has 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. Honestly, I can’t tell you what inspired us to activate it that night.
But the two of us love this. And that inspired us to start watching other body swap comedies. Very quickly, it was all We were looking at. We have binged all versions of Horrible friday in a weekend. We discovered a very strange example from 1940 called Turn, where a husband and wife change places but keep their original voices – so that the husband now sounds like the wife and vice versa. The more we watched, the more I realized not only how much I appreciate these kinds of films, but also how they are in some ways the ideal expression of the unique qualities of cinema as an art form.
That’s not to say that every body swap comedy is perfect, or even good. My wife and I have looked at a few bad ones over the past year or so. Much of the success of these films depends on the quality of the performers and their ability to adopt a personality and physique that is totally different from their own. Some players are just not up to the task. For example, Zac Efron made a totally unconvincing young Matthew Perry in 17 again and as a result, the movie just didn’t work. (Zac Efron had already seen an episode of Friends? Had he ever heard of Matthew Perry? Could he to be worse for this part?) I wouldn’t wish a screening of The hot chick with Rob Schneider in My Worst Enemy.
There are occasional exceptions, but critics tend to hate these films. Siskel & Ebert gave two thumbs down to Like father, like son, with Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore playing a father and son who swap bodies after accidentally ingesting a magical liquid. Now this is definitely not the best body swap comedy, but Siskel and Ebert despised this film, criticizing the plot, performances and even the accents of the actor. (They wanted to know why Dudley Moore always spoke with a British accent even when Kirk Cameron’s brain was inside his body, which… is a fair point.)
“It’s the decline of American cinema,” said Gene Siskel. “They just had an idea at a history conference -” Hey, let’s let two guys have a chat. The old one who will appeal to the older audience, Dudley Moore. A youngster, the kid Kirk Cameron. He’ll bring in the teenagers. – well, I’ll tell you, they won’t let anyone in. Siskel also compared Cameron and Moore’s performances to “tramps on the streets.” The film then ended with critics’ episode “The Worst of 1987”.
Again, Like father, like son is not one of the best examples of body swapping. But it’s interesting to hear the film described as proof of the downfall of American cinema, as I tend to find that big (or even half-decent) body swaps embody (sorry) precisely what Roger Ebert himself has always professed to love in films.
Here is, for example, how Ebert described the value of motion pictures in his speech when his star was unveiled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:
Movies are the most powerful empathy machine of all the arts. When I go to see a good movie, I can live someone else’s life for a while. I can walk for someone else. I can see what it feels like to be a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.
The body exchanges distill the empathetic subtext beneath all the films into a powerful, touching and hilarious text. In these films, it’s not just the audience that lives someone else’s life for a period of time; the characters themselves do it too. They literally walk in someone else’s shoes and find out what it feels like to be a member of a different gender (your name) or race (Watermelon man). In most body exchanges, this physical transformation is ultimately reversed, but the emotional transformation that follows is almost always permanent. Tense adults learn to relax, as in Vice versa. Irresponsible children come to understand their parents’ pressures and problems, or savor their childhood while they still have it, as in Fat.
Given that you can count on these life lessons and epiphanies appearing in one form or another in almost any body swap, you could argue that these movies tend to be stereotypical. But body swapping is also a genre that only works to its full potential in movies. Although there are body swap novels – Vice versa, for example, is loosely based on an 1882 book of the same name by Thomas Anstey Guthrie – they lack the performance element that makes body swap movies truly special. No flowery prose could conjure up the magic of Jennifer Garner acting like a teenage girl in 13 In progress 30.
A great writer can create a sci-fi novel as compelling as anything in movies or on television. The same goes for thrillers or westerns or detective stories. But no writer has been able to fully capture what is happening onscreen when Steven Martin and Lily Tomlin fight for control of the former’s genitals during a scene in All of me.
These scenes are vast and silly, but I have to admit I found All of me, 13 In progress 30, Vice versa, and many other heartwarming and even sometimes uplifting bodily exchanges during this tumultuous time of my life. Because they focus so much on characters who identify with the experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs of others, they reaffirm values like empathy that are sadly lacking in many modern America. They remind us that people can change, grow and become better.
So the next time you get desperate, put on a body swap movie. It might just restore your faith in humanity. Additionally, they sometimes feature Steve Martin fighting Lily Tomlin for control of his junk. If you ask me, there is no better example of “pure cinema” than this.