“Family Switch” is a Dad Joke of a movie, genially corny but enjoying its corniness so much that it invites us to enjoy it, too. It is a body-switching movie where a character assures everyone, “This is a completely unique and original situation that has literally never happened before,” followed by a series of lightly hidden references to several other body-switching films, including the classic “13 Going On 30,” starring this film’s producer and star, Jennifer Garner. Meta on meta. Sprightly direction from action and music video director McG, an appealing cast clearly having a lot of fun, and a parade of all-star supporting characters (Rita Moreno! Howie Mandel! Fortune Feimster! Pete Holmes!) keep it entertaining.
It was Mary Rodgers, daughter of composer Richard Rodgers and author of the scathing memoir Shy, who came up with the original book and 1976 screenplay of a mother/teen daughter body switch, “Freaky Friday,” remade three times so far and inspiration for many, many variations, including “Freaky,” with a teen girl switching bodies with a serial killer. In this version, the whole family switches.
Perhaps because of our familiarity with the Jenga blocks storyline of body switch films, building them up just to enjoy the falling down, there’s no need for scene-setting to establish the stakes. We know there will be some mystical force, shock and then understanding, panic as they substitute for each other, hilarity as they mess up, a growing sense of cooperation, and then new understandings, empathy, and the relief of being back.
It takes less than six minutes for “Family Switch” to line up the Jenga blocks to be knocked over. The Walker family is under a lot of stress. The parents are concerned about losing touch with the teenagers. Architect mother Jess (Garner) and amiable high school music teacher Bill (Ed Helms) are crestfallen to learn that their children are not excited to see them dress up like candy canes and dance to the Jackson 5. “You used to love to make our family Christmas videos,” Jess says. “Key word,” their soccer-star daughter CC (Emma Myers) tells them, “used to like.”
CC’s younger brother, math and science-brainiac Wyatt (Brady Noon), coolly says he prefers digital life to anything reality has to offer. The other family members are a baby named Miles and an incontinent but beloved dog named Pickles. Just to make sure there is no confusion about the movie’s themes when the family visits a planetarium super-telescope to view a “quintuple planetary alignment, a galactic confluence of the highest order of magnitude, there’s also time for a couple, “You don’t know how hard my life is” or “I wish I could be you for a while” moments. When they break the telescope, they’re hit with a mysterious force, and the next morning, they wake up switched, Jess and CC, Bill and Wyatt, and Miles and Pickles.
Chaos ensues on a day that is high pressure for everyone. Jess has a major presentation to a potential client; if it goes well, she will become a partner. CC has a big soccer game, and there will be a scout for the national team she hopes to impress. Wyatt has an interview for Yale. And Bill and his rock group, Dad or Alive, will be playing at a school party, with someone in attendance who might put them on television.
On top of the potentially life-changing opportunities are two pristine-condition possessions to show us when characters re-align their priorities. Bill has a Camero he has meticulously restored. It is carefully kept in the garage, never to be driven. Wyatt has a mint condition Charizard Holo Pokemon card, kept in a Lucite case.
The various events go pretty much the way you’d expect: jokes about the grossness of aging bodies, disputes about clothing choices, a lot of coaching on what to do and how to behave, a lot of ignoring the coaching. CC discovers what it’s like to sleep with a CPAP and have lactose intolerance. Wyatt, as Bill discovers that his crush likes him, too. The car and the Pokemon card are used to solve some of the problems created by the switch. The kids learn how much their parents have done for them. And the neighbor who is babysitting Miles and Pickles just gets very, very confused.
There’s a dance number to the inevitable but still irresistible ’90s classic, “Bust a Move.” There is also some gross-out humor that kids will appreciate, but some crude sexual humor that does not belong in a PG movie. The resolution of Wyatt’s struggles with a bully is troubling. This is not the best of the family body switch movies, and for sure, it is not the last, but the irresistible concept and outstanding cast make it a worthwhile family watch.
On Netflix now.