I know what you're thinking: not another lecture about how Hollywood has lost its way, and the studios don't know how to make a winning picture anymore. Well, indulge me. I just have to spout off about this.
Entertainment Weekly's summer-preview issue arrived in the mail yesterday, and guess what? Once again, not one major studio has on its slate a father-son mind-transfer comedy!
It seems like every movie put out today is some kind of serious drama, romantic comedy, or historical epic. And, yes, there's a certain amount of science fiction, but it always takes the form of a big action-adventure with spaceships and ray guns. I ask you, how is that supposed to teach a father and son that it's not so easy being the other, after all?
I can still remember seeing Like Father, Like Son in the theater for the first time. It was the spring of '87. Knowing next to nothing about the film, I went only because I'd enjoyed Kirk Cameron's work on Growing Pains. What I saw on that screen changed my life. It was stunning, heartbreaking, hilarious, and profound, all in one beautifully constructed 98-minute package. And, as I don't need to point out to film buffs, it ushered in what still stands as the Golden Age of father-son mind-transfer comedies.
The next year, 1988, witnessed the release of the genre-defining Vice Versa, starring Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage. You'd better believe I was first in line! In fact, I was 37 days ahead of the second person! And while Like Father, Like Son will always have a special place in my heart, I must admit that Vice Versa is, on the whole, a superior film. By (quite literally) putting themselves in each other's shoes, Savage and Reinhold deliver two of the gutsiest performances ever committed to celluloid.
Capping that magical year, the kind of year one can revisit only through the warm, sepia-toned hue of nostalgia, was 18 Again! starring George Burns and Charlie Schlatter. That was when film was magic. Though this was, in the most technical sense, a grandfather-grandson mind-transfer comedy, thematically and qualitatively, I put it right up there alongside the likes of Versa. Schlatter's bravura turn as the 81-year-old in an 18-year-old's body should have catapulted him to Hollywood's A-list, but, as we know all too well, greatness does not always translate into stardom.
My friends were all into the Star Wars movies when we were kids, but my interest was limited to the scene where Luke cuts off Vader's head, and the helmet cracks open and Luke sees his own face inside. I really thought they were onto something there, but they never really did anything with it. Just imagine what might have been had Luke and Vader somehow swapped places! While wandering around the Death Star, Luke could have tripped and fallen into some sort of experimental mind-transfer device that Vader was in the midst of checking out. Now, that would've been a movie!
So what gives, Hollywood? Don't you know how to weave pure cinematic gold anymore? Surely you're not so obsessed with counting your riches that you've forgotten how to enchant an audience with a simple yet profound tale of a father and son magically placed in each other's bodies?
I know what you're thinking: "Hey, mac, what about mother-daughter mind-transfer comedies? What about the 1977 Jodie Foster-Barbara Harris classic Freaky Friday?" Sure, Freaky Friday was a great film, its influence on the subsequent wave of father-son mind-transfer comedies undeniable, but somehow it still doesn't quite measure up. Neither do any of the trans-gender mind-transfer comedies, including that episode of Gilligan's Island where the mad scientist swaps the Professor's brain with Ginger's, and all that. And don't go talking to me about Big, either. There wasn't a dad or mom in that!
The way this vital genre has been ignored, not only by the big studios, but by so-called "indie" filmmakers, you'd think the father-son mind-transfer concept has been fully tapped, its every creative possibility exhausted. But when you're dealing with a genre this fertile, there's always plenty of new ground to explore!
What if, for example, the dad were a drill sergeant and the kid a slacker goof-off? The dad's platoon could end up winning the big boot-camp showdown because "Sarge" taught them how to cheat. Meanwhile, the kid's band becomes a hit because the "son" made them practice, practice, practice! I realize there are some plot holes, like how would the dad know how to play guitar, but maybe he magically picked up the son's musical ability during the transfer, because it wasn't a perfectly clean switch. The transfer could be a military experiment, explaining the dad's participation, and the kid could walk in on it accidentally while making some mischief around the base! That would tie up all the loose ends while remaining true to the characters!
Or suppose the dad's a hotshot lawyer, and the son's a goof-off party animal whose law-school admissions exam is just days away? They swap bodies, and the son figures he's got it made, since his dad will be the one taking the test. But then they get switched back just hours before the exam! But guess what? The kid passes the test due to the real-life experience he'd just gotten while inside his dad's body in court! And the dad learns a valuable lesson, too, discovering just how tough it is to be a kid these days. I'm not specifically pitching these premises, I'm just trying to give you a general idea of the possibilities.
I forget which Joseph Campbell book it was that explained the timeless narrative device of a father and son disliking their lives while envying that of the other until an ancient totem transfers their spirits into each other's bodies. But it showed just how resonant this story is: Regardless of what culture tells the story or when, the father and son always get switched back in the end. Clearly, this is a thematic construct that speaks forcefully to something deep within the human condition.
So get cracking, Hollywood! What's holding you up? Are you worried that all the good titles have already been taken? How about Switcheroo? Or Being Dad. Or maybe even Body-Swappin'! I, for one, would like to see Tim Allen and Frankie Muniz in the starring roles.