18 Again!

July 11, 2012

It’s happened again. The brain switchers are back. If you quivered at Like Father, Like Son, if you palpitated at Vice Versa, chances are you’ll be tingly all over at 18 Again! Once more, two people switch personalities—that is, they switch bodies—well, you know what I mean. You’ve seen it enough times.

If the title sounds familiar, it may be because George Burns, all 90something of him, has been singing the song “I Wish I Were 18 Again” for years. Someone had the idea to spin a movie out of the tune, and the film 18 Again! was born. Burns plays a wealthy, wisecracking, skirt-chasing tycoon; due to a strange mystical occurrence (did the Harmonic Convergence trigger this rash of brain switchings?), he trades places with his nerdy, withdrawn 18-year-old grandson (Charlie Schlatter).

As it turns out, this means that Burns isn’t in the movie all that much. Instead, we watch Schlatter playing a college kid with all the vinegar and drollness of the elder man. This provides some modestly amusing sequences, as the young nerd metamorphoses into a BMOC. He settles comfortably into the new role, though he startles his father (Tony Roberts) by lighting up a cigar and downing some cognac after dinner one night.

The almost-unknown Schlatter deftly handles the duties of impersonating a teenage Burns. He walks around campus in bow tie and pinstripes, and cozies up to Burns’ old pal (Red Buttons) to share golfing and gambling jokes. It’s a little weird watching an 18-year-old kid spitting out one-liners like an aging Jewish comic at a Catskills resort, but Schlatter makes it work.

Burns spends most of the movie comatose (literally, in the storyline), so the kid’s personality remains moribund while Schlatter frolics. But Burns is crisp in the opening and closing scenes, scuttling around introducing his statuesque vixen friend (Anita Morris, in her umpteenth statuesque vixen role) as “My companion, playmate, and confidante,” and doing everything but wink. Most of his dialogue is along the lines of his reply to a query about his taste for younger women: “I’d go out with women my age. But there are no women my age.”

The director, Paul Flaherty, does an effective job of keeping things simple and clear. Given a more ambitious screenplay, he might concoct a memorable comedy. In this outing, he keeps faith with Burns’ advice to his shy grandson on the technique of talking to women: “It’s not the lines, it’s the delivery.” That, of course, has been George Burns’ governing method through many decades of show business. He still makes it work.

First published in the Herald, April 1988

The next movie directed by Paul Flaherty (brother of Joe and longtime SCTV writer) was Who’s Harry Crumb?, which was not memorable. This can’t be my only reference in these writings to the 1980s phenomenon known as the Harmonic Convergence, but I haven’t uncovered any others yet.