Why the body-swap genre will never die
Since November, Vince Vaughn has been pretending to be a teenage girl. He's been doing so — and having fun “deep in the method,” as he’s put it — because he stars in Freaky, the latest iteration of a remarkably enduring subgenre: the body-swap movie.
For an actor, being in a body-swap movie means the opportunity to take on a delicious challenge. Michael Colleary, who co-wrote 1997's Face/Off, in which Nicolas Cage and John Travolta's characters swap faces, remembers Travolta telling him and his writing partner that he had always wanted to play good and evil twins. Had Face/Off — which Paramount is due to remake in the coming years — been a straight thriller about a cop and a terrorist, it would never have attracted the A-list duo, Colleary says. The genre consistently manages to poach big-name stars. The remake of Freaky Friday, a film about a mother and daughter who swap bodies, managed to attract not just Jamie Lee Curtis but also Lindsay Lohan at the peak of her career. The Change-Up saw Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman swap lives. Big: Tom Hanks. What Women Want: Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. All of Me: Steve Martin. As Benjamin Lee wrote in The Guardian last week, a body-swap film is “a unique challenge that gives [actors] the chance not only to be someone else but the chance to be someone else being someone else.”
With good reason, Colleary calls the swap a “special effect.” Without needing to spend any money, the film has a ready-made way to convince you that the essence of a person is trapped inside a different body. “You're getting a lot of storytelling value from just having two people pretending to be other people,” he says.
In body-swap films, which (with rare exceptions like Face/Off) are comedies, a big chunk of the joy has traditionally come immediately post-swap, when the characters realize that their body parts are suddenly not the size and shape they used to be. There is almost no body-swap film in which a character does not look in the mirror and touch their boobs or bum or ass in shock. “That's definitely not mine,” Lee Curtis says of her ass while trapped in Lohan's body. Shari Simpson, who co-wrote 2016's TV-movie The Swap, says, “If that were actually possible, to be able to switch in somebody else's body, the first thing you would look at would be your private parts, right?” (As The Swap was a Disney movie, genitals were off the table, meaning the writers needed to be a little less direct: “Why am I so sweaty in weird places?”)
“You're getting a lot of storytelling value from just having two people pretending to be other people.”
Tingly bits aside, the success of the genre is an unexpectedly profound phenomenon and tells us a lot about what it means to be human. “We know a shift in perspective is what gives us insight into our own feelings and strengthens our ability to help ourselves and others,” says Megan Shull, who wrote the novel on which The Swap is based. “Tucked into the hilarity of the premise is the capacity to see the world outside ourselves, widening our window for empathy.”
An apt comparison is another subgenre, time travel, which has proved similarly resilient. Perhaps we are endlessly fascinated by both because they are representations of something it is physically impossible for human beings to do. “There's always that wish inside us,” says Charlie Shahnaian, who wrote The Swap with Simpson. “We look at someone else's life and say, 'If only I had that, then everything would be great’.” The movies are always parables, says Colleary, about people who need to learn a lesson. “They're all descents into their own psyche and spirituality; and they all need to come out better people.”
Freaky Friday — the remake in particular — is held by many as an ideal for how to do the genre well. Shahnaian describes it as “the master of all body-swap films.” Excepting the regrettable catalyst for the swap — “a mysterious and magical Chinese fortune cookie” — the movie hits all the right notes. As Colleary points out, the film spends the first section setting up in detail the lives of the protagonists. The higher the stakes when the two are swapped, the better — so Lindsay Lohan's character has an important gig coming up with her band, and Jamie Lee Curtis' character is a shrink on the cusp of remarriage. Obviously, Lee Curtis cannot play the guitar and Lohan is repulsed at the thought of getting hitched to someone she’d viewed as a stepfather.
Simpson watched the film in preparation for writing The Swap. She likes the fact that the swap is irreversible until the two have demonstrated that they have learned a lesson — which, in the remake, is an act of selfless love. The lesson that the pair think they might learn — that it's hard to be the other person — is not at all what they end up discovering. “The depth of what they learn is deeply emotional,” says Simpson. “There's a deep and a profound emotional connection that you don't find in some of the other body-swap films.”
"They're connected to something so fundamental in us, of trying to understand things that are really really beyond us."
What's paramount, says Shahnaian, is the logic behind the swap. The audience will intuitively understand if a rule has been broken, he says. “You see some where they're just kinda OK with it for a while, or they're just chilling out and doing something. No. You'd be stressed the whole time, because as fun as it might be, you're trapped forever.” Also important, says Simpson, is that the film has significance beyond the comedy. Otherwise, she says, it's just an exercise in “Oh, now I'm wearing your clothes and now I have your girlfriend as my girlfriend, how silly is that.”
What might the future hold for the body-swap film? How can it remain fresh? The tropes are so well-established, and our relationship with gender so different from the decades when the genre originated, that the answer is uncertain. But, as Jake King-Schreifels says in this excellent piece about the genre, “the chance to inherit somebody’s body remains an enticing imaginary prospect — an antidote to our narrowed, isolated worlds.” Perhaps, as social media sees us increasingly siphon ourselves into self-congratulatory bubbles, more than ever we need to be reminded of how it might feel to be somebody else.
One potential avenue is that the trope becomes less comic and more serious. “Whenever they market these movies, they market them as straight comedy,” says Gaylyn Fraiche, who executive-produced The Swap. Colleary says that even with Face/Off, when someone was tasked with making a trailer for the film, he made it look like a comedy. But, says Geoff Deane, who wrote the 2006 body-swap film It's A Boy Girl Thing, “You could take any of those movies and I could write you a really serious drama about it. There are so many things you could explore; so many issues you could look into.”
With tribalism and personal identity more relevant than ever before, body-swap films could even be on the cusp of their own renaissance. “Even though it's been done and done and done to death,” says Simpson, “there's always a way to take these tropes and turn them on their head. They're connected to something so fundamental in us, of trying to understand things that are really really beyond us.” One potential variation could be a body swap featuring two people on radically different positions of the political spectrum: “a Trump lover and a Trump hater,” in Simpson's words. Or, says Deane, you could write one about refugees, convincing someone to empathize with a group of people who are so often victimized.
Though there might be, according to Shahnaian, an eye roll and a groan these days when you mention the phrase "body-swap movie,” everyone I speak to is confident that the genre has a future. It is a perfect vehicle for moral storytelling. Simpson says, “It's built into our evolution, I believe, this desire to empathize and see things from other people's point of view.” Because we are fascinated by the past but cannot visit, we love historical films. Because we are intrigued by the future but cannot see it, we love films about space travel. Because we are fascinated by how we appear to other people but will never be able to stand outside our own bodies, we love body-swap films.
In other words, as long as human beings are different, and as long as it is impossible to transport our consciousness into the body of another person, there will always be room in the world for body-swap films. “I think there are so many ways in,” says Fraiche. “I don't think it will ever go away.”