Blame or credit Franz Kafka. In 1913, the pre-existentialist Czech writer gave us Gregor Samsa, a young man who awoke one day to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach. That nifty bit of transmogrification launched a modern-day fascination with weird science. A mere three years later, cinema saw its first "Vice Versa," in which a father and son somehow mystically switch bodies. Director Peter Ustinov revived the concept for his 1948 remake, and the third film to bear this title (and the burden of Kafkaesque possibility) was Brian Gilbert's 1988 film, starring Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage.
Reinhold and Savage were hot properties at the time, with Reinhold coming off the highly successful sequel to "Beverly Hills Cop," and wunderkind Savage debuting in television's "The Wonder Years" that same year. But timing is everything. In 1988, Penny Marshall directed Tom Hanks in "Big," another story about an adolescent boy whose spirit is transferred to a grown man's body. And the difference between "Big" and "Vice Versa" is the difference between Hanks' amazing talent and Reinhold's above average acting skills. Hanks, a screen presence who could carry a picture co-starring with a volleyball, hung out with twelve year olds and managed to recapture their speech patterns, their mannerisms, and their facial reactions. There are moments when Reinhold does the same, but only moments. But even that's not fair. "Big" was unique in that it jettisoned the swap concept in order to concentrate on a single character, which removed the "cute" factor of a man trapped in a child's body. Meanwhile, "Vice Versa" plays like a male version of Disney's "Freaky Friday" (1977, 2003), complete with slightly goofy villains in a side-plot that really doesn't add anything. And parents, be warned: the PG rating came before standards toughened, so there's plenty of foul language and a diminutive Reinhold-as-Savage casually swilling martinis (never mind the logical flaw here, where only the MIND was switched, and child's body would still metabolize alcohol much differently from a man's body). And eeww, after the switch the father actually has to watch his girlfriend French kiss his son!
In the latest "Vice Versa," Reinhold plays Marshall Seymour, a Type-A vice-president of a Chicago department store who works hard, drinks hard, and spends time with his 11-year-old son hardly at all. Charlie, meanwhile, has long-term dreams of becoming a rock ‘n' roll drummer, and the short-term goal of getting through each school day without getting pushed around by the local bullies. When Marshall is in the Far East with his serious girlfriend on a buying trip for the store, smugglers switch his decorative jar with a sacred skull stolen from a Tibetan monestary in order to get it into the U.S. But before the smugglers can switch things back, father and son get switched around because of the mystical skull's powers. Suddenly, Marshall-as-Charlie has to contend with bullies, tests, and sleepovers at the home of his ex-wife and her new husband, while Charlie-as-Dad must deal with potential product recalls, a new marketing plan, and a girlfriend who seems to like the younger-spirited Seymour more than the real thing.
"Malcolm in the Middle" fans will enjoy seeing Jane Kaczmarek as Charlie's mom (though it's a straight role), and there are some truly laugh out loud moments. But by and large, this film runs as predictable a course as the rides at Disney World. When the bad guys (played only slightly less over-the-top than Glenn Close and her sidekicks in the live-action "101 Dalmatians") try to get the skull back and kidnap Charlie (who's really Marshall), you'll have déjà vu—as Yogi Berra would say—all over again. In the end, as is the intent with all such films, the transformation, more than the skull itself, is what really worked its magic. "It sure feels good to be 11 again," Charlie remarks. "How old are you, Dad?" And Marshall smiles. "Younger than I used to be, kid."
The late Gene Siskel called this "funny family entertainment," but families who watch this together may feel a tad uncomfortable. Dad has a pretty foul mouth for a white-collar exec, and while his repertoire of at least five different soap-worthy expressions aren't exactly words that most kids haven't already heard, as the swear words fly, parents may find themselves wondering if it was a kid's movie and adult fare that somehow got switched.
The picture has been remastered in High Definition in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), and the quality is on a par with newer releases, with sharp contrast—though the colors themselves have a slightly dated look.
The soundtrack is no-frills, with Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and English/Spanish subtitles, but there is good separation on sound effects, with more than a few moments where the sound of objects move effectively across the room from one speaker to another.
The only extras are a few random trailers. This is a low-budget release, with no inserts and no special features.
Hollywood has given us a virtual invasion of the body-swappers. In addition to "Big," the three "Vice Versa" films, and two "Freaky Friday" entries, there was also "Like Father, Like Son" (1987) starring Dudley Moore in another of his duds, and another lackluster release from the same time period whose name escapes me (it was "18 Again!", and many thanks to Sean, one of the DVD Town faithful, for jogging my memory). Disney fans will also recall "The Shaggy Dog" (1959) and it's remake, "The Shaggy D.A." (1976), which had humans transmogrified into dogs. There was even a ‘70s campy classic, "Watermelon Man," where a bigoted white man awoke to find himself turned into something more nightmarish than a cockroach. But in all of these films, the gag's the thing, and the challenge has always been for an actor to somehow manage to elevate the film from being simple one-joke fare. Jamie Lee Curtis almost pulled off the levitation feat in the recent remake of "Freaky Friday," but to date only Hanks has done it. The rest, like this update of "Vice Versa," fall into the same "cute concept, but . . ." cinematic limbo world as talking animals pictures.