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Superficial Fun, Troubling Messages in "Freaky Friday"

  • Michael Medved Your Cultural Crusader
  • 2003 6 Aug
Superficial Fun, Troubling Messages in "Freaky Friday"

I know it sounds preposterous to probe for deeper, underlying messages in a movie called “Freaky Friday,” but this competent remake proves both slick and substantive enough to provoke that sort of analysis. Like its fondly remembered 1976 predecessor (starring Barbara Harris and a teenaged Jodie Foster), as well as a mediocre TV movie in 1995, the latest installment exploits the sturdy premise of a Mary Rodgers novel about a high school girl temporarily switching bodies with her middle-aged mother.

The new version makes its gesture to twenty-first century fads by portraying the mom (Jamie Lee Curtis) a single, stressed-out professional on the verge of marriage to the adoring, selfless and preternaturally handsome Mark Harmon. Part of the conflict with her daughter (Lindsay Lohan) involves the teenager’s discomfort at the prospect of a new father in the family -- a reaction that bears no connection to divorce issues, since we discover midway through the movie that Curtis is actually a widow.

The central mother-daughter conflict involves a quirk of Friday night scheduling:  the kid’s all-girl rock band gets the chance for a once-in-a-lifetime audition at the House of Blues on the same evening in which she’s expected at the mother’s wedding rehearsal dinner. This detail reflects the consistent cleverness of first-time screenwriter (and former New York Times journalist) Heather Hach:  if the choice had involved a rock 'n' roll performance versus the wedding itself, no reasonable observer could have taken the teenager’s side. But since the fifteen-year-old can still promise to attend the ceremony, and only proposes to miss the rehearsal dinner, both daughter and mother get sympathetic arguments to make.

In the course of presenting their respective points at a Thursday night dinner in a Chinese restaurant, the elderly mother of the joint’s owner hands the two quarreling women a pair of mystical, magical fortune cookies. As they eat, they experience a frightening earthquake — which no one else in the restaurant seems to notice. The next day, they awaken to the frightening (and very comical) anomaly of switched bodies:  the sulky teenager takes over the physical being of Jamie Lee Curtis, while the hard-driving mother occupies the far more petite form of pert Lindsay Lohan, who previously starred in “The Parent Trap,” another likeable Disney remake.

After a certain amount of shock and screaming, the story proceeds to explore walk-a-mile-in-her-shoes premise we’ve been expecting for a half an hour, and promptly runs into trouble. The difficulty involves its disturbing lack of balance:  instead of mother and daughter each learning that her opposite number faces a more challenging, difficult life than she had expected, the movie clearly suggests that parents have it easier than kids. When occupying her mother’s body, the fifteen-year-old heroine has a blast: using credit cards for a shopping spree, driving wildly around town in a fashionable Volvo, undergoing a hip remake that involves additional ear-piercing and a radical hair cut (the day before the mother’s wedding). Mom’s professional work as a psychologist and self-help author turns out to be trivial and easy to fake:  by letting loose with her instinctive teenaged spunk on a TV interview show, she enables her mother to enjoy far greater success than she ever knew with her uptight middle-aged outlook. Even motorcycle-riding, high school dream boat (Chad Michael Murray) who represented the girl’s chief crush shows more interest in her when her personality is contained in the body of Jamie Lee Curtis.

The mother, meanwhile, discovers that everything about high school life proves more troublesome and complex than she expected — especially when she must accompany her daughter’s rock band for the all-important audition. The message comes across so intently and entertainingly that even young kids will pick it up: rock 'n' roll is vastly more difficult to fake — and vastly more important – than the practice of psychology. Like “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” from earlier this year (another Disney release aimed primarily at young girls), “Freaky Friday” treats pop music performance as the highest goal to which any teen can aspire and the magical solution to all life’s problems. Unfortunately, most kids need no further encouragement with their dreams of rock stardom.

The movie also takes a needlessly positive view of such adolescent fads as navel piercing; many parents will disagree with the story’s implicit endorsement of this insanity as a harmless quirk. There’s also a tasteless, feeble attempt to wring humor out of the grandfather’s hearing loss and advancing senility; Harold Gould’s over eager performance as the confused codger doesn’t help. Ten-year-old Ryan Malgarini fares much better as the inevitably mischievous and obnoxious younger brother of the main character. Every teenaged heroine in movies comes fully equipped with such a tiny teaser and tormentor, as do many big sisters in real life.

Despite its drawbacks, the story unfolds with cheerful, warm-hearted style, and delivers a few moments of surprising mother-daughter emotion at its climax. Director Mark Waters (who previously created a wretched and incompetent supermodel comedy called “Head Over Heels”) here provides an appropriately light and sunny touch, and handles his capable cast with easygoing sympathy. The humor delivers chuckles rather than belly laughs, and the film’s resolutely pro-teen/anti-adult point of view undermines its richer satisfactions, but “Freaky Friday” provides an evening of above average entertainment that parents can enjoy alongside their kids. Rated PG for some rude language, but no disturbing sex or violence references.  TWO AND A HALF STARS.

Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio show focusing on the intersection of politics and pop culture.  He's the author of eight non-fiction books, was co-host for 12 years on "Sneak Previews" on PBS, and is the former Chief Film Critic for the New York Post.