A correction was made to this review on July 21, 2003.
One of the more pleasant surprises of a summer movie season littered with lumbering disappointments, “Freaky Friday” is a fleet and funny comedy with more than enough cross-generational appeal to draw auds far beyond target demo of teen and tweener females. Indeed, there’s definite “Princess Diaries”-style sleeper potential in this genuinely clever switched-identities romp. Expect a leggy theatrical run, followed by brisk vid biz.
Pic actually is third Disney film of the popular 1972 novel by Mary Rodgers. First version, a broad 1977 farce, paired Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster as single mom and adolescent daughter who magically swap personalities. (Comedy was a B.O. under-achiever in its time, but subsequently developed a large, loyal following.) Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman assumed lead roles in the 1995 made-for-TV recycling.
In this new and largely improved configuration, Jamie Lee Curtis shines as single mom Tess Coleman, a stressed-for-success psychotherapist, and up-and-comer Lindsay Lohan (who also top-lined Disney’s 1998 “The Parent Trap” retread) is appealing as Anna, Tess’ 15-year-old daughter. Each thesp is adept at evoking the other’s body language and speech patterns after the switcheroo takes place. But Curtis bounds beyond mimicry and gimmickry: She’s nothing short of dazzling as she enjoys one of her relatively rare opportunities to showcase her splendid comic timing and graceful physicality.
Early scenes are a tad too over-emphatic — almost strident, really — as helmer Mark Waters errs on the side of obviousness while setting up familiar premise. Anna is a spirited, self-absorbed adolescent who repeatedly clashes with her bratty younger brother, Harry (Ryan Malgarini), and chafes against disciplinary restraints imposed by her totally uncool and control-freakish mom. Tess is a well-meaning but work-obsessed widow who doesn’t approve of Anna’s fashionably grungy attire, and usually takes Harry’s side when the boy claims his sister is picking on him
The mother-daughter squabbles escalate into a public shouting match in a Chinese restaurant two days before Tess’ marriage to the blandly affable Ryan (Mark Harmon). An aged waitress (Lucille Soong) with a recipe for magic decides to intervene by offering Anna and Tess some enchanted fortune cookies. The next morning — a Friday morning, of course — the spell is cast: Anna finds herself trapped in her mother’s fortysomething body (“I’m old! I look like The Crypt Keeper!”) while Tess is transported into her daughter’s more nubile carcass.
Once he completes his expository duties, Waters lightens his touch to allow for a freer, friskier sort of comedic interplay. Curtis — who hasn’t been this enjoyably antic on screen since “True Lies” — plays for big laughs as Anna-as-Tess uses her mom’s credit cards to finance a more becomingly cool fashion and hairstyle makeover. Better still, she strikes the perfect balance of lovestruck bliss and anxious discomfort in scenes with Chad Michael Murray as Jake, a hunky high-schooler who’s attracted to Anna. As Jake finds himself, much to his perplexity, equally attracted to Anna’s “mother,” Murray offers a textbook example of how to grab attention while engagingly underplaying in a thinly written supporting part.
Lohan does a fine job of conveying Tess’ buttoned-down, chronically disapproving demeanor inside Anna’s form. She’s especially effective as she faces down a tyrannical teacher (Stephen Tobolowsky) with a hidden agenda, and reflexively turns motherly while Tess-as-Anna hangs out with Anna’s classmates. Climactic scenes — a rock concert where Anna’s garage band auditions for a gig and a wedding rehearsal where Tess tearfully reconciles with her daughter — are predicable but amusingly well-played.
“Freaky Friday” comes complete with maxims about seeing life through someone else’s eyes, bridging the generation gap, appreciating the pressures brought to bear on loved ones, and blah blah, blah. To their credit, screenwriters Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon sugar-coat the bite-sized life lessons with humor and verve.
A strong supporting cast — including Mark Harmon, whose character reveals surprising depth and decency in a key scene, and Harold Gould as a sprightly grandfather — also helps the medicine go down.
Pic is a reasonably slick tech package, and sports a tune-filled soundtrack that will generate CD sales. A nice touch: To underscore the cross-generational aspects of the plot, score employs two different versions of “Happy Together” (i.e., original Top Ten single by The Turtles and newly recorded cover by Simple Plan).
It’s worth noting, by the way, that director Waters originally attracted attention with “The House of Yes” (1997), an edgy, Sundance-friendly indie. So what’s next from Disney? A new version of “The Love Bug” directed by Larry Clark? Or perhaps a “Candleshoe” remake helmed by Todd Solondz? Consider the possibilities.