In body-swap comedies, the acting is its own kind of brazen put-on fun. Adult actors get to channel their inner innocent kid; young actors get to channel their “serious” adult. And that’s why, ever since the original “Freaky Friday” (1976) brought this genre into being, it’s been marked by instances of true Hollywood artistry, like Tom Hanks’ classic performance in “Big” (though that wasn’t technically a swap comedy) or the lyrically funny bedlam that Jennifer Garner brought off in “13 Going on 30,” one of the best movies of its year.
But even that was 20 years ago. In the decades since, dozens — hundreds — of Hollywood comedies have wallowed in a baseline joke of American middle-class behavior, repeating it again and again like a sacred trope. Today, the movies teach us, adults already are overgrown children: creatures of impulse and appetite and development arrested by their immersion in pop culture. They’ve never outgrown the kid in themselves. Whereas kids, the movies teach us, now move through the world with the verbal precocity and confident observational style of grown-ups. On some level, they already are adults in kids’ bodies.
This double cliché has never been all that funny (or true). It’s more of a reductive sitcom-and-movie-farce stereotype. But in “Family Switch,” a double body-swap movie (mother and daughter switch places, and so do father and son), it both neuters and undercuts the movie’s comedy.
At Christmastime (the film is designed to be “a Christmas movie,” even though it isn’t really), the Walkers are a fractured L.A. clan, with everyone striving in different directions and not much in the way of mutual support. So when they run into a magical gypsy fortune teller (Rita Moreno), who snaps their photograph as they stand on the rim of the telescope at Griffith Observatory, causing them to switch bodies, it’s an opportunity for each of them to see how the other half lives.
Garner, perhaps nurturing the hope that body-swap-comedy lightning will strike twice, plays Jess, the mom, who is angling to become the first female partner at her architecture firm (it all depends on her big pitch). She finds herself in the body of her daughter, CC (Emma Myers), a teenage soccer star. Ed Helms is Bill, the dad, a high-school music teacher who just missed out on being a member of Maroon 5. He finds himself in the body of Wyatt (Brady Noon), his brainiac son. As for the two kids, they now occupy the middle-aged faces and physiques of their secretly desperate parents.
At which point a fractious but inspired humanistic comedy unfolds…not. But why not? The actors are engaging, and McG, who directed, stages the movie with a verve you’d think would translate into something halfway delightful.
Here’s the problem. Once the adults and kids switch bodies, they simply don’t seem…different enough. They’re all speaking in the same wide-eyed snark vernacular. The script, by Victoria Strouse and Adam Sztykiel (it’s loosely based on Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s best-selling children’s book “Bedtime for Mommy”), is less a smoothly rounded plot than a cluttered, opportunistic heap of situations. Jess, who’s lactose intolerant, makes her big pitch at the office after CC scarfed ice cream, resulting in a meeting sabotaged by bodily functions. Bill, in Wyatt’s body, goes in for Wyatt’s Yale interview and somehow acts like more of a clueless teenager than his son would have. CC, in Jess’s body, is a hopeless clod on the soccer field. And when all four go to a high-school party, and Jess and Bill (as CC and Wyatt) bust a move to “Bust a Move,” what should be the joke — that they’re kids doing 30-year-old dance moves — is wrecked when everyone in the room starts dancing that way.
I haven’t even mentioned the film’s other body swap: between Miles, the Walkers’ toddler, and Pickles the French bulldog (who starts walking on his hind legs). These two are overseen by Rolf (Matthias Schweighöfer), a dog-and-baby sitter with an uproarious Cher-min accent. “Family Switch” does all it can to make you laugh, yet we can’t help but notice that the storyline built around Ed Helms’ Bill tries to have it both ways — he’s a doofus yet he’s also, somehow, like Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future,” a master of the universe when returning to the world of high school.
Each of the Walkers learns that the family member they’ve inhabited is a better person than they thought. They learn to appreciate each other, and to play Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” in a band together. So it almost doesn’t matter if everyone misses out on their dream, in the overly programmatic way of “Little Miss Sunshine.” The movie, though, can’t even stick to that. The film’s worst line? “Bein’ your dad has been the rock ‘n’ roll adventure of a lifetime.” “Family Switch” has bits and pieces of amusement, but mostly you want to swap it for a better movie.