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10 Cliches of the Body Swap Movie

10 Cliches of the Body Swap Movie

This list was originally posted to Spout Blog on April 15, 2009. It has been republished in anticipation of the latest body swap comedy, “The Change-Up,” opening this Friday

By Christopher Campbell

Despite having a title that reminds us of that George Burns-Charlie Schlatter role-reversal movie from the ‘80s, “17 Again” is not in fact part of the body swap genre. Rather, it’s more like “Peggy Sue Got Married” without the time travel. It’s also like a backwards “Big,” a movie many people mistakenly assign to the genre, which more technically includes such classics as “The Hot Chick,” “Dream a Little Dream” and “Like Father Like Son.” Of course, age-swapping films like “Big,” “13 Going on 30” and now “17 Again” share many conventions and clichés with body swapping movies, so aligning them with that genre’s films is not entirely a film classification no-no.

Most familiar body swap movies owe their basic plot structure to F. Anstey’s 1882 novel, “Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers”, which is, yes, the source material behind the 1988 movie starring Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold, as well as the basis for four other, prior film adaptations and a short-lived TV series. Even the three movie versions of “Freaky Friday” are more akin to Anstey’s story than the Mary Rodgers’ novel on which they’re based. In a way, because of the lesson learned in “17 Again,” this new movie is also reminiscent of Anstey’s novel, even if not in a walking-in-someone-else’s-shoes sort of method.

But are there any other similarities to the body swap genre? You decide. While watching “17 Again” this weekend, be on the look out for any of the clichés of the body swap movie, which we illustrate below, in order to determine its closeness to the classification.

1. The Ridiculous Method of Transference

Neither brain transference nor transmogrification (for the difference as related to the genre, watch this) is scientifically possible, so screenwriters have to develop as ridiculous an explanation of and method for body swapping as possible. It may be a serum (“Like Father Like Son”), or a jeweled skull bust (“Vice Versa”), or an Aztec statue (“It’s a Boy Girl Thing”), or a fortune cookie (the most recent “Freaky Friday”), or ancient earrings (“The Hot Chick”) or some other stupid object, as long as it can be described in trailers and posters as “mysterious.” Sometimes the method is not actually given an explanation, such as in Rodger’s book of “Freaky Friday,” but this is rare and unacceptable. This cliché does overlap with the age-swapping movies, which use an arcade fortune-telling machine, wishing powder or, in the case of “17 Again,” a wish-granting janitor played by Brian Doyle-Murray.

2. Kid-As-Adult Acts Too Immature

Typically a comedic actor or actress will be cast as the father or mother character (in the parent-child swaps), because while portraying the kid trapped in that adult’s body he or she is required to be silly and childlike. But most of the time, whether it’s Judge Reinhold or Dudley Moore (or even Tom Hanks or Jennifer Garner, for the age-swap connection), the performance is too childish, no matter the original age of the kid. 13-year-olds aren’t as excited by toys, 17-year-olds aren’t as careless with their gum, they know what a drink means when it’s “on the rocks,” and teens generally aren’t as immature or unintelligent as they are when played for slapstick humor by adults. Obviously, this cliché can’t be applied to 17 Again.

3. Adult-As-Kid Acts Too Behind-the-Times

A reciprocal cliché to the one above, child and teen actors cast in these films (the parent-child ones) are overly serious, even before the transference, which actually contributes to the problem of cliché #2. Additionally, while portraying the adult trapped in their kid body, they are written as being so ignorant of what it’s like to be young that they come off as even older-minded than they’re supposed to be. There’s no way the dad in “Vice Versa” thinks a school cafeteria has Grey Poupon. And it’s unlikely the mom in “Freaky Friday” thinks it’s appropriate to “fix” her daughter’s friends’ style of dress. Sure, these kinds of extremes between the child and adult are intended to create comedic situations, but they mainly create unbelievable ones, especially if the adult actor/character is only in his 30s, as in “Vice Versa” and “17 Again.” Of course, behind-the-times ignorance does work in “18 Again!” and “Dream a Little Dream,” because these films involve elderly men’s minds in the teens’ bodies.

4. Comic Attention Paid to Change in Private Parts

Here is a disturbing cliché that fits the usual parent-child swaps, as well as the less familiar gender swaps, and it also certainly extends to the age-swapping films like “Big” and “13 Going on 30.” During the moment of discovery, when the characters are first dealing with the swaps, male characters will look into their pants while female characters will grab their chests or butts. Things have either gotten bigger or smaller, or in the case of “Dating the Enemy,” “It’s a Boy Girl Thing” and “The Hot Chick,” appeared or disappeared. “The Hot Chick” even goes so far as to address the idea of a man dealing with menstruation.

5. Spending Montage

For the kid trapped in an adult body, there’s suddenly access to credit cards, paychecks, etc., with which that character goes on a shopping spree. Likely during a montage. Usually the adult-as-child character will be upset with the child-as-adult’s choices in purchases and personal makeover, but ultimately the new haircut/wardrobe/items will benefit the elder character in some way, even if simply making him/her seem cooler and more open-minded.

6. The Adult Becomes Cooler

Jumping off from the effects of the spending/shopping montage cliché, the child-as-adult will similarly display other unseen-before cool traits and open-mindedness that will benefit his/her adult peers’ perception of him/her. Youthful activities exhibited may include drum playing, guitar playing, motorcycle riding, skateboarding, crowd surfing, trampoline bouncing and dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”

7. A Big Event Dependent on a Unique Talent

Whether it’s a parent-child swap, a male-female swap or whatever kind of swap, there always has to be some sort of event that requires the unique talent of a character who is in the wrong body. This could be a big football game or track or diving meet (“It’s a Boy Girl Thing,” “Like Father Like Son” and the 1995 version of “Freaky Friday”) or it could be a big concert (“Vice Versa” and the recent “Freaky Friday”). In the Spanish film “Pon un hombre en tu vida,” both athletic and music talents are involved. Occasionally there might also be another kind of event not necessarily hinged on a talent, but which still requires the swap to be reconciled. In the recent “Freaky Friday,” this event is the mother’s wedding.

8. The In-the-Know Friend

This element is not in all body swap movies, and it’s not a necessary convention, yet it is a kind of cliché narrative device for those scripts that employ the helpful, in-the-know character. She/he usually shows up as the kid’s best friend, as in “Like Father Like Son,” though in “The Hot Chick,” the girl-as-guy protagonist has multiple friends who are let in on the unbelievable situation. As far as comedy is concerned, it’s usually better for a swap movie not to feature an in-the-know character, because he/she ruins many an opportunity for more humorous mistakes. Age-swapping movies also utilize this device, and in “17 Again” the best friend ends up posing as the adult-as-kid’s father.

9. Slightly Veiled Pedophilic Moments

Certainly “Big” has the most recognizable act of statutory rape, and there’s some argument for the inappropriateness behind a kiss scene in “13 Going on 30,” but actual examples of the body swap genre have their own moments that veer awfully close to pedophilic suggestion. Usually the un-swapped elder character involved in the inappropriate scene is innocently unknowing, and usually the child-as-adult disgustedly gets out of the situation, but not always soon enough. In the most recent version of “Freaky Friday,” the daughter-as-adult manages to avoid a kiss from Mom’s fiancée, but later she has an awkwardly pedophilic-seeming moment with a teenage suitor in a coffee shop and on the back of the boys’ motorcycle. Thankfully, we never have to see Jamie Lee Curtis do anything more to Chad Michael Murray than wrap her arms around him.

10. Additional Body Swappers

Probably due to Mary Rodgers’ writing of a sequel to “Freaky Friday” (titled “Summer Switch”), in which the books’ father and son do the swapping, a few body swap movies have utilized the cliché of having additional body swappers, most commonly at the end of the film. “Like Father Like Son” has a dog and cat do the switching, “Vice Versa” concludes by having the film’s villains involved in a body swap, and the first movie version of “Freaky Friday” ends with hint of a sequel (an unconnected TV movie was made out of “Summer Switch” a decade later). The most recent adaptation of “Freaky Friday” initially went with a similar ending (featured on the DVD as an alternate/deleted scene), but the final cut had the film’s grandfather and grandson saved from being swapped at the last minute.

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