Can you talk about a movie like Freaky Friday having a message?
If you can, you’d have to say that the message of the new Freaky Friday, Disney’s third movie version of the children’s book by Mary Rodger, is this. Teenagers, at least the cool ones, are cool. Little brothers are obnoxious. Parents (and grandparents) are old. Because they’re old, they’ve forgotten how to be cool. They’ve forgotten how hard high school math is. They’ve forgotten how to dress, yet they judge other people by their clothes — which teens do too, but teens know how to judge people by their clothes.
Adults are stressed because they care about uncool things, like paying bills and cleaning the house. If only they could just realize that what really matters is playing in a rock band. If they could only learn that teenagers really are right about everything, just like they think they are.
Stories about role reversals are usually about teaching both sides a lesson in humility and appreciation. When Lucy and Ethel go to join the work force while Ricky and Fred stay home to keep house, everyone has a miserable time, everyone comes to a new appreciation for what the other half goes through, and everyone resumes their own roles with renewed satisfaction.
In the book which first told the freaky story about a mother and daughter who switch bodies, the transformation is actually entirely for the daughter’s benefit. In fact, the mother is actually responsible for the switch (and won’t say how she did it). In the 1977 film version (starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster), both parties are equally mystified by the switch, and both are equally miserable in each other’s roles.
In the new Freaky Friday, after the switch occurs, both parties are miserable all right — but teenaged Anna (Lindsay Lohan), with her no-nonsense approach to life, is much more successful as an adult than mother Tess (Jamie Lee Curtis) is as a teenager. Anna can take on Tess’s counseling patients and can bluff her way through a talk show, passing out her teen wisdom and impressing everyone with her new fashion sense. She can even get the teenage boy that she likes to fall in love with her as a middle-aged woman.
Tess, on the other hand, is a complete failure as a teenager. Her daughter’s friends at school now all think Tess-as-Anna is "weird." She can’t play electric guitar, which threatens to ruin daughter’s big band audition. The teacher who hates Anna still hates Tess-as-Anna (though she does manage to take him down a bit). She’s even a failure in trying to smooth things over with the popular girl who persecutes her daughter. Considering she’s supposed to be a counselor, that’s pretty sad.
Before the switch takes place, the movie subjects us to a miserable half hour of Anna being persecuted by her odious little brother Harry (Ryan Malgarini) and her ridiculously unfair English teacher, ignored and misunderstood by her mother, and screaming "You are ruining my life" a lot.
Anna’s father has died, and Tess is remarrying. Anna complains that her mother pays no attention to her, which is absolutely true — not that she ever seems to want to spend time with her mother; what she mostly wants is to be left alone to play her guitar, but that’s beside the point. At this point in her life, Tess’s wedding plans and her busy counseling practice keep her constantly on the run, usually on one or more of her phones / beepers / pagers / palmpilots, which are constantly going off, often all at the same time.
Anna complains that her mother disapproves of a boy she likes (Chad Michael Murray) based on how he dresses ("You don’t even know him") — though she herself has no trouble judging other people by how they dress, including her mom. Naturally, the boy turns out to be totally responsible and mature — indeed, more responsible and mature, as we later see, than Tess herself, whose later unethical (and completely out-of-character) actions in her daughter’s body he rightly disapproves of.
Harry, the kid brother, is a snotty brat, disrespectful to adults and incredibly obnoxious to Anna; yet Tess always takes his side. In one episode, Anna finds Harry reading her diary aloud to his friends while jumping on her bed wearing one of her bras. Later, her mother actually punishes her for getting in trouble in school by removing her bedroom door from its hinges, telling her that privacy is a privilege, not a right. She even tells Anna that "high school isn’t hard." This woman is supposed to be a counselor?
Then comes the change, imposed upon them by a Chinese restaurant owner who witnesses their bickering and decides to teach them a lesson. The fortune cookies that they each read aloud bring on the change, and the spell will not be broken until they each learn a lesson in unselfishness.
So, Tess needs to learn to listen to her daughter, that the motorcycle-riding boy really is a good guy, that the little brother really is obnoxious to Anna, that the teacher really is tormenting her daughter unfairly, and that the ex-friend popular girl really is evil. Hmm, any other lessons for boring old mom? Oh, yeah, she needs to learn to dress sexy, and that playing the guitar and doing it in front of an audience is really hard, but totally cool and not "just noise."
And what about Anna? What lessons does the movie have for her to learn from this experience, other than that she already knows everything and what a failure her mother is? Does she learn how to think about someone else for a change, or how hard it is to try to raise two kids while working full time at a job as demanding as psychotherapy? Nope. All the learning is for frumpy adults who have forgotten about rock and roll.
Because the rules require her as well as her mother to have a breakthrough in unselfishness to reverse the switch — though Anna’s main fault is yelling "You’re ruining my life!" a lot — the movie has to tack on some kind of climactic selfless moment for Anna. So we get an arbitrary scene about Anna realizing she had to "accept" her mother’s new husband — though she had never had a problem with the man himself in the first place; it was the soonness of the marriage to her father’s death and her mother’s busy schedule that she’d objected to.
It’s not all bad. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan both do a great job of imitating each other’s mannerisms, and it’s entertaining to watch them acting, respectively, like a teenager in a middle-aged woman’s body and vice versa. Teens will enjoy spending time with Anna and her band, and they’ll get a kick out of watching one of their own let loose driving a car, spend lots of money on cool clothes, and getting to make her own decisions about important things like getting a ride on a motorcycle without having to fear getting in trouble. It’s too bad she never has to go food shopping, cook the meals, do the laundry or dishes, clean the house or balance a checkbook all while holding down a full-time job.
In the very end there’s a scene in which Anna’s grandfather (thrown into the movie as a hard-of-hearing joke) is lamenting that "youth is wasted on the young." Too bad the makers of this new Freaky Friday forgot that.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.