Three-Way Movie Duel: Vice Versa vs. Like Father Like Son vs. 18 Again!
Welcome to our first-ever Three-Way Movie Duel! For those unfamiliar with the Agony Booth’s Movie Duels series, this is where we look at films with strikingly similar premises that came out at nearly the same time, but up until now, we’ve only been pitting two films directly against each other, mano a mano. So what could possibly justify our first Movie Duel threesome, our first menage a duel, our first-ever filmic fingercuffs, other than the wildly and briefly popular subgenre of Comedies Where Dads Mystically Switch Bodies with Their Teenage Sons? Well, it must have been wildly popular, because for a seven-month stretch from October of 1987 to April of 1988, no less than three films in this niche saw theatrical release: Vice Versa, Like Father Like Son, and 18 Again!
(1988’s Big often gets lumped in with these three, even though Tom Hanks doesn’t switch bodies with anyone. Another film that often gets included is 1989’s Dream a Little Dream, with Corey Feldman swapping bodies with Jason Robards, but it doesn’t count for the purposes of this Movie Duel because their characters aren’t related. Plus, it may be one of the most incoherent movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen Zardoz.)
But what we’re dealing with here is really just a small subset of the body swap genre, which was already well-established at the time these movies were released; Disney’s original Freaky Friday had Jodie Foster swapping brains with Barbara Harris, Heaven Can Wait had Warren Beatty’s soul inhabiting a dead guy’s body, and Lily Tomlin got trapped inside Steve Martin in All of Me. And there were plenty of body-swap shenanigans happening on TV, in everything from Bewitched to Gilligan’s Island to Fantasy Island to the original Star Trek.
But for some reason, in the late 1980s, the notion of fathers and sons swapping bodies was particularly intriguing. Could it be that this was the last time American culture espoused a strong belief, as instilled into most baby boomers as youngsters, that there had to be a sharp demarcation between being a “kid” and an “adult”? That there simply had to be a definitive time when a boy put away childish things and became a man? And that films like these were made as a direct rebuke to that ideology?
Or… could it be that studios just thought teaming up an adult star with a kid/teen star would be a great way to appeal to audiences of all ages? Yeah, it’s probably the second thing. (But then again, I’m visualizing a 2019 entry in this genre, where a 30-year-old man swaps brains with a teenage boy and ends up watching lots of cartoons, obsessing over comic book superheroes, and playing video games all day; would anyone even notice the difference?)
Of course, the genre would continue on after the breakthrough years of 1987-88: Rob Schneider and Rachel McAdams would swap bodies in The Hot Chick, Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis would switch brains in a Freaky Friday remake, Matthew Perry would turn into Zac Efron in 17 Again (surprisingly, not a remake of 18 Again!), and Regina Hall will become the daughter from black-ish in Little, the latest entry in the genre, due out later this week.
But we shouldn’t forget where it all began. Join me as I take a look back at these three films, in no particular order.
The father: Judge Reinhold
The kid/teen sitcom star playing the son: Fred Savage from The Wonder Years
Mind transference method: Mysterious skull totem from the “far east”
Reinhold is Marshall Seymour, your typical uptight thirtysomething yuppie with a mid-level executive job at a Chicago mall (the movie insists it’s a “department store”, but the scenes are all filmed inside a mall). Savage is Marshall’s son Charlie, who’s into hockey, and playing drums, and he really loves a hair metal band called Malice—which is a real band, even though I was convinced it was a parody of hair metal bands invented for the film. Marshall is divorced from Charlie’s mom (Jane Kaczmarek) but still trying his best to be a good father, and even though Charlie can be a troublemaker at times—like when he brings his pet frog to a fancy restaurant—deep down he’s not a bad kid.
While on a business trip to Asia with his coworker and girlfriend Sam (Corinne Bohrer), Marshall makes the acquaintance of an American who’s posing as a tourist, but is really a smuggler who’s come into possession of a strange, mystical artifact that’s basically an upside-down skull mounted on a golden pedestal. He and his wife (Swoozie Kurtz) sneak the skull into the US, but due to a vague and comical mix-up, the mysterious skull ends up in Marshall’s possession.
The skull totem eventually finds it way into Charlie’s hands, just as father and son are having a heated argument about which of them has the tougher life. Naturally, they’re both touching the skull while expressing a desire to switch places.
Unlike other films in the body swap genre, we don’t get a simple flash of light or a couple of negative frames to show the two have switched brains. In this case, we get rudimentary morphing effects as Marshall grows shorter and smaller and literally transforms into his son, while Charlie gets taller and bigger and changes into his father, complete with Incredible Hulk-style shirt-ripping effects.
They’re initially horrified at the switch, but Charlie is due at school in twenty minutes, so clearly the only course of action here is for Marshall to pretend to be Charlie. Marshall heads to school to attend a day of junior high, while Charlie puts on a suit, along with sneakers and an ugly tie because he doesn’t know any better, to work a day in his father’s office.
While things initially look good for Marshall as Charlie after he blasts through his son’s exams in minutes, it becomes clear that he’s getting the worse end of this bargain: Marshall now has to put up with his son’s bully (a young Ajay Naidu, Samir from Office Space), his oddball teachers, and he even has to endure hockey practice when he doesn’t know how to skate.
Meanwhile, Charlie as Marshall is totally confused by office politics as his coworkers wonder if he’s having a mental breakdown. But then Charlie wins over the big boss when he visits the store’s musical instrument department, and uses his drumming skills to get into a big ‘80s jam session with a guy who turns out to be the son of the store’s best customer.
Charlie also has to spend time with Marshall’s girlfriend Sam, with the rationale being that their relationship is in trouble and they might break up if Marshall doesn’t pay attention to her. So Charlie takes Sam to go see his favorite band Malice, and he’s acting strange, yet so fun-loving and fancy-free that Sam can’t help but profess her love for him. Which then forces Marshall as Charlie to cockblock (or… the female equivalent) Sam and prevent her from trying to sleep with his 11 year old son.
Marshall then has a really important presentation, but Charlie knows nothing about the subject matter, so they rig up a two-way radio to pull a Roxanne and have Marshall tell him exactly what to say. Alas, right in the middle of the meeting, the two smugglers re-enter the picture and kidnap Marshall in exchange for the mystical skull.
Charlie has to jump into action to save his dad, and then all the body-swapping threads are dropped for a chase scene where Charlie hands over the skull to the criminals, gets his dad back, and then he and Marshall commandeer a police motorcycle to try and catch them. And along the way, the two smugglers just happen to both touch the skull at the same time, and they both just happen to wish they could switch places. You can guess what happens next.
At last, father and son get the skull back, and it’s only now they realize they both have to be touching the object for it to work. They switch places again in an uncomfortable scene that involves them both stripping down naked. This is so Marshall doesn’t rip Charlie’s clothes when he expands back to adult size, but there’s really no explanation for why Charlie has to get undressed too.
And the nuttiest part is how after they both change back, Marshall is all like, “eh, I’ll just return this thing to Thailand when I get the chance”, instead of thinking, holy shit, we’ve got a magical device that can swap minds! Marshall returns to his life, and as you’d expect, he’s now reaping the benefits of everything Charlie did while in his body: not only has he been promoted, but Sam reveals that “Marshall” proposed, and she said yes.
“Cute” is about the best word to describe this movie. Not great, not hilarious, not terribly original, but cute from start to finish. Savage does well at playing an adult, and watching him constantly sip martinis and do some (very mild) swearing is quite the sight, but it’s Reinhold who really makes us believe he’s an 11 year old trapped in a grown man’s body. Despite being a middling film, Vice Versa might be Judge Reinhold’s best performance, as he brilliantly takes in the adult world around him with equal parts wonder and confusion.
This is definitely not a deep examination of what a kid would do in an adult’s body, or vice-versa (hah!), but as a 90-minute mid-budget family comedy, I doubt anyone was expecting more.
The father: Dudley Moore
The kid/teen sitcom star playing the son: Kirk Cameron from Growing Pains
Mind transference method: Mysterious serum developed by Native Americans
This film hits a lot of the same story beats as Vice Versa, including a belabored introductory scene that takes time to set up the method of mind swapping: in this case, it’s a special serum created by a remote Indian tribe, which is discovered by an anthropologist and brought back to civilization.
After this prelude, we meet Dr. Jack Hammond (Dudley Moore), a respected heart surgeon who’s dealing with plenty of uninteresting hospital politics. Jack is hoping to be promoted to hospital chief of staff, but he’s being tempted by a dalliance with the boss’ wife, because this is one of numerous ’70s and ’80s movies that put forth the dubious notion that middle-aged Dudley Moore was irresistible to women. Meanwhile, his son Chris (Kirk Cameron) is your typical high school senior. He runs track, he’s not doing so great in biology, he pines for a girl named Lori who barely knows he’s alive, and he’s constantly getting picked on by her dumb jock boyfriend.
Chris’ best friend (Sean Astin), who goes by “Trigger” for unexplained reasons, turns out to be the nephew of that anthropologist. Thanks to him, Trigger has secured a sample of the mind transference serum and put it in a Tabasco bottle, and try not to mentally exhaust yourself figuring out where this is going. Just for kicks, Chris and Trigger use the serum to experiment on the family dog and cat. The pets immediately switch minds, and now the cat is barking and the dog is meowing—which, come to think of it, also happened in that Gilligan’s Island episode—and so our introduction to one of the main characters is him indulging in twisted animal abuse.
Hijinks ensue when the housekeeper picks up the Tabasco bottle and puts it in the pantry, and Jack accidentally adds the serum to his Bloody Mary. This leads to the inevitable moment where Jack and Chris link eyes and switch bodies… but not accents.
That’s right: After the switch, Dudley Moore continues to speak with a British accent, and Kirk Cameron continues to speak with an American accent. Of course, you could rationalize this away by suggesting they didn’t swap the parts of their brains responsible for speech. Yes, you could rationalize it that way, but the movie never bothers.
Chris’s first order of business is to use his father’s credit cards to buy slick ‘80s clothes, porno mags, and go to a nightclub, where he happens to run into his dad’s boss’ wife and shamelessly flirts with her. And then he drinks himself into a stupor during an almost dialogue-free sequence that exists solely to promote the soundtrack, including that song that told everybody to “Wang Chung tonight”.
Chris as Jack drives home drunk, so Jack as Chris has him call in sick to work, while Jack goes to school and pretends to be his son. He shows up in his Jaguar, which immediately gets Lori to notice him for the first time. Then he goes to biology class and starts correcting the teacher on everything wrong with his lesson. Then Jack takes over teaching Chris’ history class (biology, I can understand, because he’s a doctor. But history?), and by the time lunch rolls around, the entire school hates him for being a know-it-all.
Meanwhile, Chris as Jack gets busted playing hooky by his dad’s boss, and so he has no choice but to go to his dad’s work. He shows up at the hospital and pretends to be a surgeon, and even more stupidly, he does rounds with the interns and cluelessly attempts to react to a patient who’s flatlining.
And then it becomes imperative for Jack to go on a date with Lori, the girl his son has the hots for, because otherwise she might never be interested in him again. And their date is to—you guessed it—another hair metal concert. They go see Autograph, which this time I actually knew was a real band, and Jack absolutely hates it.
Meanwhile, the boss’ wife comes over to their house and hits on who she thinks is Jack. Chris, in his clueless way, fumbles around and eventually ends up setting the living room couch on fire and shoving it in the pool to put it out. And this mishap has absolutely nothing to do with the two guys swapping minds; Chris is just a moron.
Finally, the anthropologist returns, and everybody drives to Death Valley to find a potential cure. And along the way, this movie takes a strange dramatic detour as they end up at a truck stop where a woman goes into labor, and Jack has to pull a Doogie Howser and convince everyone that despite his youthful looks, he’s able to deliver the baby.
Eventually, father and son get the cure, but nothing happens. For no reason, the cure doesn’t kick in until the next day, when Jack is taking his son’s college entrance exam (a test he bails on, and which never gets mentioned again) while Chris is being told by the big boss that his father is out of the running for the job of chief of staff. Chris, who’s now Chris again, rushes to the hospital to explain why his father has been acting so weird, and maybe even suggests that he was the one who was banging the boss’ wife. Jack, now himself again, has a tearful hug with his son.
Meanwhile, Trigger gets more of that mind transference serum, and through a sequence of events too tedious to recount, he doses both the dumb jock from Chris’ school as well as Jack’s boss. This causes them to switch bodies and get their supposed comeuppances, just like the smugglers in Vice Versa.
This movie is an utter mess. Big plot points seem to occur with no rhyme or reason, and there are all sorts of unfunny comedy bits thrown in even though they’re completely unrelated to the premise of a father and son switching bodies.
But the worst aspect of Like Father Like Son is just how unlikable everyone is. In stark contrast to Vice Versa, they seem to have been going for more of a black comedy here (with an added dash of ‘80s teen sex comedy), but even in a dark comedy full of people doing awful things to each other, you still have to be able to sympathize with somebody. And here, everyone is detestable. Chris is presented as a horny, opportunistic idiot (who’s pining for a girl who’s an obvious gold-digger), and Jack is a smug know-it-all. Which is compounded by the fact that he’s mostly played by Kirk Cameron, who’s just as much of a smug know-it-all in real life, particularly on subjects he knows nothing about, like evolution. Dudley Moore gets maybe one or two funny bits of physical comedy here, but overall this is one of Moore’s very worst, down there with Best Defense and Arthur 2: On the Rocks.
The (grand)father: George Burns
The kid/teen sitcom star playing the (grand)son: Charlie Schlatter—technically a sitcom star for headlining the short-lived Ferris Bueller series
Mind transference method: Unclear; either a mysterious birthday cake, or a mysterious shop window
I fully admit that including 18 Again! in this Movie Duel is a bit of stretch, because this one actually falls into the even narrower movie subgenre of Comedies Where Grand-Dads Mystically Switch Bodies with Their Teenage Grand-Sons, of which this movie is the sole example.
It’s also a mild stretch in another way: While Burns and Schlatter’s characters do in fact swap bodies, we only see the grandfather in the grandson’s body, because the older man’s body conveniently slips into a coma immediately following the swap. But I’m willing to cut George Burns some slack here; at the time, the comedian was 91 years old and probably not up for indulging in lots of gags and stunts while pretending to be a teenager.
Burns plays Jack (yes, “Jack”, just like the father in Like Father Like Son) Watson, a wealthy businessman who naturally tends to toss off pithy one-liners and putdowns. Schlatter plays his grandson David, a freshman art major who runs track (just like the son in Like Father Like Son), works at his grandfather’s accounting firm, and is also pledging the fraternity his grandfather once belonged to. And the president of the frat is dating Robin (Jennifer Runyon), who just happens to be the girl of David’s dreams.
Jack is turning 81, meaning Burns is actually playing younger than his real age here, but it’s obvious why: because “81” is “18” backwards, and it allows for these admittedly clever shots of the main characters with the “81” on Jack’s birthday cake. Though, wouldn’t it provide better foreshadowing to have Burns with the “18” and the kid with the “81”?
After the birthday party, Jack and David head out for a bite in Jack’s car, and perhaps proving that 81 year olds shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel, Jack swerves to avoid a construction worker and ends up ramming his car through the window of an antiques store. And just before the crash, grandfather and grandson hold hands, which somehow explains what happens next.
Jack wakes up in the hospital, and realizes he’s in David’s body, and this is revealed via George Burns’ voiceover providing Jack’s inner monologue. And the bad news is that this inner monologue continues throughout the entire film. In nearly every scene, Burns drops some hacky borscht-belt one-liner commenting on the action like an unfunny version of The Wonder Years, and most of his asides sound like they were crowbarred in long after filming was complete.
Jack quickly figures out that David is in his body, which is now in a coma. But Jack doesn’t let this slow him down one bit, and he proceeds to live it up in his grandson’s body.
First, Jack dresses down all of David’s frat bros, saying he knows their grandfathers. Then he backtalks one of David’s professors who’s teaching a lesson on Harry S Truman, because Jack actually knew Truman, and is able to set the professor straight. Then he goes to an art class with his buddy (a pre-fame Pauly Shore) and Jack is beside himself at getting to paint a naked woman. (And oh, for the days when PG-13 movies could sneak in a little bit of nudity; Let’s just say you’re never going to see full frontal in a Marvel movie.) And the joke here is that Jack doesn’t quite have his grandson’s artistic talent.
Jack then impresses Robin with his elderly ways; it seems she can’t resist an 18 year old guy who wears bowties and drinks martinis and smokes cigars while walking around all hunched over. They go out on a date to yet another concert, but for a change of pace they don’t go see a hair metal band in this movie. Instead, they see the Dickies, a punk band, and of course Jack hates it.
Eventually, Jack convinces his frat to throw a 1920s-themed party where the women dress up like flappers and the men dress up like… uh, singers in barbershop quartets, I think. Or state delegates in old-timey political conventions. Jack leads everybody in doing the Charleston, until the president of the frat shows up and gets enraged at Jack dancing with his girl. The frat prez breaks out some kung-fu, then challenges Jack to a foot race at the university track to settle their differences, as you do.
But then Jack gets word that his gold-digger girlfriend is planning to pull the plug on his body, with David still inside. So he rushes to the hospital and steals his body, leading to a gurney chase through the hospital that ends with David and Jack clasping hands and recreating the original accident as they smash through a stained glass window into the hospital’s chapel.
The window gambit works; Not only do they switch back, but Jack is now out of his coma and healthier than ever. Meanwhile, David is confused because he’s been in a vegetative state for the whole movie, and now has to contend with having to win a track meet and also Robin’s heart.
This movie comes at the tail end of Burns’ big ‘70s and ‘80s comeback, which started with his Oscar-winning turn in The Sunshine Boys, and continued on through movies like Oh God! and its sequels, and the embarrassing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (another film that had Burns’ voice providing painful running commentary). During this comeback, Burns even had a country hit with “I Wish I Was 18 Again”, which was the primary inspiration for this movie, so naturally there’s a scene where the whole story grinds to a halt so Burns can perform the song.
There’s not much more to be said for this limp, uninspired comedy. Among the few positives is that Schlatter really gives it his all here, doing his best to mimic Burns’ voice and mannerisms. And given Burns’ status as a showbiz legend, he was able to convince a few veteran actors to appear here, including Tony Roberts, Red Buttons, and Anita Morris. But there’s not much anyone in the cast can do to liven up this bland script. It’s obvious that Burns’ voiceover was added in post-production in a desperate attempt to punch up a comedy that’s light on jokes, but it only makes the film that much more tedious as Burns recycles the same one-liners he’d been telling for decades.
Which one needs to exist?
Vice Versa, by a wide margin. I mean, it’s not even a contest. The other two movies are all the explanation you need for why this genre died out in 1988.
On a final note, I can’t tell you how difficult it was to keep these three movies straight in my head while I was writing this article; from the three different rock concerts, to the three different dream girls, to the three different bullies, to two of the “sons” running track, to two of the “fathers” being named Jack, and one of the “son” characters being named Charlie while one of the son actors is named Charlie, it all blurred together after a while. Under normal circumstances, I’d wonder if any of these movies were ripping each other off, but this was the late 1980s. I think every “teen-oriented comedy” back then was required by law to follow this formula.