When you’re trapped in your house for 18 months straight because of a global pandemic, you have to find new ways to entertain yourself. Over the last year and a half, some people took an interest in home improvements. Others learned to bake. (You’ve got to try my chocolate mint cookies, by the way. They taste just like Andes Mints!)

With theaters closed, my wife and I occupied our time revisiting movies from our childhoods. We watched Hocus Pocus one night and License to Drive the next. Some of those films wound up as the subjects of a column I wrote during the early months of the pandemic. Then one day, we stumbled across Vice Versa, a 1988 comedy about a father and son (played by Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage) who swap bodies. The film doesn’t have the greatest reputation. It grossed a so-so $13 million at the box office and has a 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I honestly can’t tell you what inspired us to turn it on that particular night.

But we both loved it. And it inspired us to start watching other body swap comedies. Pretty soon, it was all we were watching. We binged every version of Freaky Friday in a weekend. We discovered a very strange example from 1940 called Turnabout, where a husband and wife switch places but keep their original voices — so the husband now sounds like the wife and vice versa. The more we watched, the more I realized not only how much I enjoy these kinds of movies — but how they are in some ways the ideal expression of cinema’s unique qualities as an art form.

Walt Disney Pictures
Walt Disney Pictures

That’s not to say that every body swap comedy is perfect, or even good. My wife and I have watched some bad ones over the last year. A lot of these films’ success depends on the quality of the performers, and their ability to adopt a totally different persona and physicality from their own. Some actors simply aren’t up to the task. For example, Zac Efron made a totally unconvincing young Matthew Perry in 17 Again and as a result, the movie simply did not work. (Had Zac Efron ever seen an episode of Friends? Had he ever heard how Matthew Perry talks? Could he be worse for that part?) I wouldn’t wish a screening of The Hot Chick starring Rob Schneider on my worst enemy.

There are occasional exceptions, but critics tend to hate these movies. Siskel & Ebert gave two thumbs down to Like Father, Like Son, with Kirk Cameron and Dudley Moore playing a father and son who swap bodies after they accidentally ingest a magic liquid. Now this is certainly not the best body swap comedy around, but Siskel and Ebert despised this film, criticizing the plot, the performances, and even the actor’s accents. (They wanted to know why Dudley Moore still spoke with a British accent even when Kirk Cameron’s brain was inside his body which ... is a fair point.)

“This is the decline of the American movie,” declared Gene Siskel. “They just came up with an idea in some story conference — ‘Hey, let’s have two guys switch. One who’s old, who’ll appeal to the older audience, Dudley Moore. One who’s young, the kid Kirk Cameron. He’ll get the teenagers in.’ — well I’ll tell you, they’re not going to get anyone in.” Siskel also compared Cameron and Moore’s performances to “bums on the street.” The movie later wound up on the critics’ “Worst of 1987” episode.

Again, Like Father, Like Son is not one of the body swap’s finest examples. But it’s interesting to hear the film described as evidence of the downfall of the American cinema, when I tend to find that great (or even halfway decent) body swaps embody (sorry) the pure essence of precisely what Roger Ebert always professed to love about the movies.

Here, for example, is how Ebert described the value of motion pictures in his speech at the unveiling of his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else’s life for a while. I can walk in somebody else’s shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief.

Body swaps distill the empathetic subtext beneath all movies into moving, hilarious text. In these films, it’s not just the audience that lives somebody else’s life for a while; the characters themselves do it as well. They literally walk in somebody else’s shoes, and discover what it feels like to be a member of a different gender (Your Name) or race (Watermelon Man). In most body swaps, that physical transformation is eventually reversed, but the emotional transformation that follows is almost always permanent. Uptight adults learn to loosen up, like in Vice Versa. Irresponsible kids come to understand the pressures and problems of their parents, or to savor their childhood while they still have it, like in Big. 

Given the fact that you can count on these life lessons and epiphanies appearing in some form in almost every body swap, you could argue that these films tend toward the formulaic. But body swaps are also a genre that only works to its full potential in movies. While there are body swap novels — Vice Versa, for example, is loosely based on a 1882 book of the same name by Thomas Anstey Guthrie — they lack the element of performance that makes body swap movies truly special. No amount of florid prose could evoke the magic of Jennifer Garner acting like a teenager in 13 Going on 30.

A great writer can create a science-fiction novel as compelling as anything in film or television. The same goes for thrillers or westerns or cop stories. But no writer could fully capture what happens onscreen when Steven Martin and Lily Tomlin fight for control of the former’s genitals during a scene in All of Me.

These scenes are broad and silly, but I must admit to finding All of Me13 Going on 30Vice Versa, and many other body swaps comforting and even occasionally uplifting during this tumultuous period. Because they do focus so heavily on characters coming to identify with others’ experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs, they reaffirm values like empathy and compassion that are depressingly absent from a lot of modern America. They remind us that people can change, and grow, and become better versions of themselves.

So the next time you’re despairing over the state of things, put on a body swap movie. It might just restore your faith in humanity. Plus, it might also feature Steve Martin fighting Lily Tomlin for control of his junk. If you ask me, there’s no better example of “pure cinema” than that.

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