Monday, 30 July 2012

Mother’s gonna make things fine

Freaky Friday (2003): directed by Mark Waters; written by Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon

Freaky Friday is hardly a maligned film. It had a solid box-office presence, earned a globe nod and managed good to great critiques from the critical populace. Yet, retrospectively, the film seems to have fallen into this rut of lesser important fare not, pleasantly trifling but not especially worthy of remembrance. This is a shame because even as Freaky Friday seems to (and the key word is, of course, seems) to emerge as a typical teenage comedy romp its humour (and its drama) is firmly rooted in such provocative thematic issues it’s a shame we don’t see more like it. When I reviewed Pixar’s Brave a few weeks ago, I mentioned how the deus ex machina contrivance of a mother and daughter forced to love each other after a spell gone awry reminded me so much of this 2003 flick. It’s not the deus ex machina, principally, though but the focus on the generation gap at work between a mother and a rebellious daughter which tie the two films together and which makes Freaky Friday such a significant film of the aughts.
I fear, though, I’m already heading into this one with too much head and not enough heart. Freaky Friday treads the well-worn tracks of body-switch movies, a fairly common movie scenario of the 90s and earlier. The familiarity of the conceit does not prevent the film from bursting forth with an overwhelming amount of exuberance, even with all the “serious” things at work. Tess Coleman has been widowed for three years and is about to remarry, much to the consternation of her rebellious teen daughter. The rift between the two is pronounced but not especially catastrophic. A meddling Chinese cook attempts to mend it through a suspicious fortune cookie and the two wake up one morning in the other’s body. The reaction to this switch is as expected – disbelief, horror, then acceptance with the hope that it’ll soon be rectified. The daughter heads off in the guise of her mother, and the mother in the guise of her daughter. Neither believes the other has a particularly daunting everyday calendar, and both are wrong.

Perhaps the execution itself sounds conventional. With 90 minutes at their disposal Hach and Disposal set up the status quo and what they want accomplished by the end of the runtime with alacrity. Both mother and daughter will endure mishaps making them cognisant of the wrongness of the preconceived notions, their own ingenious will turn the mishap into a success and ultimately peace shall be restored. Where the film supersedes expectations is not just in the how these plot-points are established but in the other shades added to the scenario. A heartfelt toast at a dinner engagement rehearsal though almost guilty of the penchant for protagonists to reveal their feelings through tears at key moments isn’t presented with a key awareness of the characters’ idiosyncrasies as well as the melancholy with growing up and realising just how human your parents are.
....go below the jump for thoughts on Mark Waters' output, the goodness of the main performances, and my younger self's love for this one...

I’ve not seen the 90s flick House of Yes, but looking over the rest of his oeuvre Mark Waters has made three terrible films (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Head Over Hells), two fair ones (Just Like Heaven, The Spiderwick Chronicles, one very good film (this) and one great film (Mean Girls). Even in his bad things, Waters’ highest credit is his ability to make scenes go down easy. Visually, Freaky Friday might not be one of the most innovative family films of the last decade but its ability to be self aware yet zippy is an insurmountable credit. Waters makes a dead parent, a potentially odd romance between a fifty year old and a teenager, and parental resentment unfold effortlessly. This is not to be confused with a director intent on making things palatable to the point of being devoid of pain, but it is evidence of a director firmly in control of tone. Even when it touches on those dramatic moments with startling honesty the humour is still mixed up in it (next to the aforementioned toast, the best emotional moment is tied up in a scene of comedic gold where the mother in her daughter’s body must play at a rock concert making way for daughter in mother’s body to save the day – essentially, Jamie Lee Curtis being luminous).

And, that inextricable link between humour and drama? That’s on the goodness of the actors. Like all body switching scenarios a great chance is offered to Lohan and Curtis to play in each other’s sensibilities. Lohan is tasked with more of the straight man antics and if she comes off (but barely) as a bit too pragmatic it’s only because she is playing someone pragmatic. And, of course, she’s never actually been an adult so she’s playing “big” in a theoretical way whereas Jamie Lee Curtis is so obviously relishing the chance to play young not in theory but as an extension and resurrection of her own former child. What’s best about the performances is that the two are best opposite each other. It’s an imperative thing because amidst more standard fare like peer pressure and romances the mother/daughter dynamic must be the buttress on which it all rests and it is simply because the two work so well together. Of course the way the film is skewed towards them and their performances means that the secondary characters emerge as especially secondary but it’s not so much a flaw as it is a minor inconvenience.
This is where 21 year old Andrew turns to 13 year old Andrew (who had a big thing for this film) and admit that Freaky Friday and its rompy humour works just as well now as it did then even if I can’t quite ignore things like Chad Michael Murray’s inability to play lovesick quite well (an actor I like much too much for someone who is so often not very good), or the fact that in the middle section Tess (in Anna’s body) is given less interesting things to do than Anna (in Tess’ body). But, what was the last live-action teen-targeted comedy to focus so significantly on the rocky terrain to be forged before a mother and daughter could really exist on a plane of coexistence? What was the last one to do it as sweetly, funnily and honestly as this? What was the last one to do it while all the while making fun of itself and having so much fun doing it? I’m scratching my head trying to think of one, and even if I do end up finding one it wouldn’t mitigate the goodness of this one.

Grade: B (13 year old me might say B+)


Chip Lary said...

I thought this was a fun film. Jamie Lee Curtis looked like she was having a lot of fun. I'm old enough to have watched the original 70s version, too. The biggest difference is they removed some of the "naughty" things the daughter tried while in the body of the mother (drinking and smoking).

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

chip i've read the original book (significantly different from the film) a number of times. curtis is having so much fun which makes the performance that much more enjoyable.