The movies haven't always known what to do with Jamie Lee Curtis since she abdicated her role as the screen's reigning scream queen. The vocally robust star of John Carpenter's 1978 horror classic "Halloween," Curtis has in the years since had the sort of middling movie career of an actress who never managed to ascend to major stardom yet was somehow too big for character parts. Like most actresses over the age of consent, she tends to get sidelined as the wife or the mother although it's the smart director — like James Cameron in "True Lies" — who spots the mischief in Curtis' eyes and cuts her loose.
Watching Curtis gently cut loose is one of the low-key pleasures of the winsome generational comedy "Freaky Friday," which falls under the rubric of the family film but is far better than that category often allows. Based on the book by Mary Rodgers, the story about a mother and teenage daughter who switch bodies for a single day was first released in 1977 and recycled some two decades later for television. In the first film, the mother was played by Barbara Harris, who was all but overshadowed by her young co-star, Jodie Foster, red-hot off of her streetwalker role in "Taxi Driver." Lindsay Lohan, the young actress who takes on the role of the daughter this time, arrives unencumbered with such notoriety, which makes it easier to appreciate just how nicely she holds her own against Curtis.
As Dr. Tess Coleman, a widow raising 15-year-old Anna (Lohan) and 10-year-old Harry (newcomer Ryan Malgarini), Curtis doesn't so much enter the scene as throw herself into the familiar fray. Her black coordinates flowing, her cell phones and personal organizers cocked like sidearms, Tess embodies the overextended parent as superhero. A woman who leaps the demands of work in a single bound and still has energy to do the family shopping — she coos to a client on one phone as she haggles with caterers on another — Tess doesn't have the time or the patience for her daughter's adolescent agonies. But then the tables turn, the bodies switch and Tess revisits the purgatory of high school (and some of its pleasures, notably temperature-riser Chad Michael Murray) while her daughter learns just how hot mom's legs look in high-heeled boots.
Directed with brisk playfulness by Mark Waters, who attracted some attention a few years back with his indie feature "The House of Yes," and written by Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon, "Freaky Friday" doesn't turn the original inside out, but does bring the story and characters persuasively up-to-the-minute. There are plenty of niceties in that regard — Tess unfolds her morning lotus position while doing her nails, Anna saws on lead guitar in a garage band — but what mostly distinguishes the film, makes it feel fresher than the usual retread, is the seriousness with which it takes both sides of the family divide. The filmmakers give Anna her due, but in the process of giving the kid her say they don't sacrifice Tess on the altar of the working mother, as do so many exercises in putative family values.
"Freaky Friday" doesn't try to break new ground, but at least in one respect it does come off as fairly radical: For all their yelling, stomping and really angry hair-flipping, Anna and Tess make for a refreshingly normal pair. Although the story hinges on a supernatural whammy — the switch comes courtesy of two Asian characters whose "ancient Chinese secrets" delivery is the movie's only downer — most of what transpires isn't all that exceptional.
Turning ordinary life into movie magic is one of the most difficult, least-heralded challenges for any filmmaker. What makes "Freaky Friday" a charmer isn't how far-out things get for this mother and daughter, but how sweet and distinctly un-freaky a kid, her mom and their love for each other can be.
MPAA rating: PG, for mild thematic elements and some language
Times guidelines: Squeaky clean, some chaste kissing
Jamie Lee Curtis ... Tess Coleman
Lindsay Lohan ... Anna Coleman
Mark Harmon ... Ryan
Harold Gould ... Grandpa
Chad Michael Murray ... Jake
Walt Disney Pictures presents a GUNNfilms production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Mark Waters. Writers Heather Hach, Leslie Dixon. Based on the book by Mary Rodgers. Producer Andrew Gunn. Director of photography Oliver Wood. Production designer Cary White. Editor Bruce Green. Costume designer Genevieve Tyrrell. Music Rolfe Kent. Music supervisor Lisa Brown. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times