It’s a tried-and-true comic device: Take two polarized characters and let them trade places to see what empathy they may cultivate by literally walking in someone else’s shoes. Body-swap films offer exciting character studies—an actor has to play their character acting like a different character, while keeping the same clothes and physical attributes of the original. For decades, these roles have almost exclusively gone to white actors. Whether putting on the disguise willingly or not, these protagonists all learn the thrill and the terror of swapping lives.
All of Me
September 21, 1984
All of Me has the classic elements of the body-swap genre. Two people who loathe one another? Check. Physical comedy? Yep. Public embarrassment? You got it. But its plot complicates the usual logic of the body swap: Steve Martin’s hapless Roger Cobb is the estate lawyer for brittle, dying millionaire Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), who has arranged to have her soul transferred into the body of a younger woman; when the plan goes awry, Edwina gets trapped in Roger’s body instead. It’s both an existential and an embodied problem: Roger controls the left side of his body, Edwina the right, and both of them want her evicted asap. Gags involving urination and spiteful boner-killing likely won’t seem fresh to current audiences (nor will a cringey “swami” character), but the chemistry between Tomlin and Martin is worth a watch.
Walt Disney Pictures
August 6, 2003
This remake of the 1976 film—an adaptation of Mary Rodgers’s 1972 children’s novel of the same name—offers a snapshot of early-aughts aesthetics. Lindsay Lohan plays messy alt-rock teen Anna Coleman, who sports low-rise jeans, a messenger bag, chunky highlights, and a bad attitude. In a modern update to a working mom, Jamie Lee Curtis plays uptight-turned-irresistible therapist Tess Coleman, who seduces heartthrob Jake (Chad Michael Murray). Unlike its predecessors, though, the movie interjects a new reason for mother and daughter to magic into each other: a xenophobic mystical Chinese stereotype. Pei-Pei (Rosalind Chao) provides those fateful fortune cookies. But in the end, we see that Pei-Pei is the real winner here: She manipulated these women in a long-game strategy to snag a catering gig at the big wedding, and it worked.
November 13, 2020
Unlike its lighter, funnier body-swap counterparts, Freaky is a bloody love letter to the slasher films that came before it. Paying homage to classics such as Halloween (1978) and Scream (1996), this gore-filled horror comedy begins two days before Friday the 13th, when the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) unwittingly switches bodies with 17-year-old Millie (Kathryn Newton). Of course, the film plays up the underlying humor of a teenage girl being suddenly stuck in Vaughn’s hulking 6’5” figure and a brutal serial killer learning the advantages and disadvantages that come with occupying the body of a tiny blond high schooler. Freaky is the unexpected marriage between Freaky Friday (2003) and Friday the 13th (1980) that shouldn’t work but somehow does.
April 12, 2019
Although casts in the body-swap canon are overwhelmingly white, Little breaks that mold (Issa Rae’s character April Williams even comments on this in the trailer, stating, “That’s for white people”). Settling into the formula of a body-transformation narrative, rather than a straightforward body swap, the film follows the tyrannical Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall), a high-powered tech executive who terrorizes her employees. Predictably, this doesn’t go well for her, and she’s forced to move through the world in the body of her 13-year-old self until she learns her lesson. Little may not necessarily challenge the story structure of its predecessors, including Big (1988) and 13 Going on 30 (2004), but, notably, offscreen, Marsai Martin (who plays young Jordan) pitched the movie herself and became the youngest executive producer in Hollywood.