I can hear the uproar now — “He gave Freaky Friday a higher rating than Seabiscuit?” And I can see the dismay in my friends’ eyes from here.
Sure, it would be easy to do the curmudgeon shtick on this second remake of the 1976 Disney flick starring Jodie Foster and Barbara Harris in roles now inherited by Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. But it wouldn’t be honest. Yes, I could cite the fact that a few of the shots are out of focus and that there’s one painfully bad post-production overdub to smooth over a plot point. I could even note that the movie is pretty predictable (remakes do tend to be), and that it oozes feel-good vibes.
And while this is all true, I also have to note that I walked into Freaky Friday in a truly vile frame of mind — preoccupied with all sorts of issues not related to the movie and stressed-out to an alarming degree. At film’s end, no, all my troubles hadn’t vanished (nothing so miraculous as that), but I realized I had not thought about them at all for 90-odd minutes. I had completely escaped into the fantasy and comedy laid out before me by director Mark S. Waters and his two stars. Now, any movie that can do that is doing something very right indeed.
And, frankly, I think Freaky Friday does a lot more right than it does wrong. It may help that I harbor no special fondness for the 1976 version helmed by TV director Gene Nelson (whose credits range from such tasty esoterica as Good Morning, World to such embarrassments as Me and the Chimp). That the original Friday is now being called the “Disney classic” doesn’t quite measure up with my memory of bad slapstick and worse process-work special effects, but I draw the research line at watching that 1976 film again to find out whether memory fails me. Regardless, the new movie quite holds up on its own — and is a breath of fresh air at the end of a summer redolent of steaming donkey droppings like Bad Boys II, From Justin to Kelly and Gigli (to name but a few).
The basic plot, of course, follows the well-established formula — mother and daughter magically switch bodies and comedically come to a better understanding of each other. The stakes are somewhat upped in the new version by making the daughter a bit older, so that more complex issues regarding sex and independence replace the G-rated concerns of the parent film. It should be noted, however, that the new film never sinks to the level of so much modern comedy (for starters, there’s not even a hint of flatulence humor anywhere in the movie!). Credit must go to newcomer Heather Hach and co-writer Leslie Dixon (Pay It Forward) for crafting a screenplay that’s more concerned with characters than with broad comedy.
It’s certainly true that the characterization is a little sketchy, and that it’s all very obviously skewed to work itself around to a Disneyfied conclusion in which everybody turns out to be more admirable than they at first seem (exempting a snotty cheerleader and a grudge-nursing English teacher). For all that, it’s very hard not to genuinely like these characters; and — at least in the case of the two leads — they’re not as cardboard as you might think. And it’s gratifying to see that, in the final analysis, daughter Annabell (Lohan) is rather more scrupulous than her mother, the supposedly very upright Tess (Curtis).
Director Waters proves that what was wrong with Head Over Heels had more to do with the script than with his direction. He not only understands how to keep the film moving, he knows how to let it turn serious without becoming saccharine — no small feat. But so much of the movie’s success must be attributed to Curtis and Lohan.
Too often dismissed as a “scream queen,” despite her work in considerably more serious films like John Boorman’s The Tailor of Panama, Curtis is also a natural comedienne. She proved it in A Fish Called Wanda and its undervalued companion piece, Fierce Creatures, and even in the abysmal Drowning Mona. She proves it again here — showing no qualms at all about making a fool of herself for the good of the movie. She (and the script) have the teen-speak down pat, without the whole thing toppling over into caricature. Lohan is very nearly Curtis’ equal in her ability to project the appropriate adult gravity in her switcheroo state.
No one’s going to win an Oscar for this movie. It’s not going to change anyone’s life — though it might make you just a little less quick to judge others. But it’s a solid, funny, human hour-and-a-half of the most pleasant escapism I’ve seen this summer.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke