Vice Versa

March 18, 2020

viceversaRemember Like Father Like Son? There’s no reason you should, except that it was released less than six months ago, It was the one about a father and son who exchanged personalities through a mysterious process, and lived the other’s life for a few days.

Personality transference seems to be reaching epidemic proportions in the cinema. It even occurs among screenwriters (the mysterious process of plot transference perhaps), because exactly the same premise has turned up in a new film called Vice Versa.

Here the father (Judge Reinhold) is a successful executive, a gotta-go-I’m-late-for-something type who actually orders Grey Poupon in restaurants. Son (Fred Savage, the kid in The Princess Bride) is a grade-schooler who shuttles between his divorced parents; in a restaurant, he’s likely to loose his pet frog on the unsuspecting patrons. To set the plot in motion, dad travels to Thailand to buy some merchandise, and manages to bring back a germ­-encrusted skull that has some special power.

This object zap’s dad’s brain into the boy, and you know, vice versa. Which means that the adult who walks into his business office has the mind of a 10-year-old. And the child in grade school is ordering limos to pick him up after class.

Vice Versa is using exactly the same sort of fish-out-of-water comedy as Like Father, Like Son. But I’d give the very definite edge to this new film. The script by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais does rely on familiar jokes, but it’s a much better acted and directed movie.

Reinhold has some lovely, goggle-eyed moments as the boy­-in-the-man’s body, and he nicely captures the complicated excitement of being kissed by dad’s girlfriend (Corinne Bohrer). Meanwhile, the adult in Savage’s body has to worry about the possibility of going back to live with his ex-wife, who would now also be his mother: “It’s a Freudian nightmare!”

The film is directed by Brian Gilbert, a Britisher who made the fetching Sharma and Beyond for English TV. He’s got a light touch, given the generic limitations, and draws the father-son relationship well. He even makes the dumb subplot, in which the real owner of the skull (Swoosie Kurtz) tries to regain possession, reasonably watchable. In short, if you absolutely have to make a movie about personality transference, this is the way to make it.

First published in the Herald, March 10, 1988

I love Sharma and Beyond so much that I’ve always kept an eye of Brian Gilbert’s career, which has had interesting entries (a couple of literary biopics, Tom & Viv and Wilde, as well as the Sally Field picture Not Without My Daughter, which gave a running gag to South Park). He hasn’t directed a film since 2005, so maybe that’s that. Clement and La Frenais are British writers (both born 1937) who have a near-unbelievable record of produced stuff, going back to writing for Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the 1960s and including Across the Universe and The Commitments. Reinhold was having his moment at this time, and so was Corinne Bohrer, who made Dead Solid Perfect the same year.

Sharma and Beyond

February 28, 2011

That's right: giant VHS box. You try finding an image for this movie.

The Crest theater’s series of filmed-for-British-television “First Love” movies continues this week with another charmer: Sharma and Beyond, from writer-director Brian Gilbert and executive producer David Puttnam.

From its mysterious opening sequence, during which the camera glides down an empty English country road while the soundtrack soars with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, there’s the feeling that a confident presence is in control behind the camera. The rest of the film confirms this feeling.

Sharma and Beyond is about the adventure of Stephen (Michael Maloney), a young science-fiction writer. Actually, he’s a would-be science-fiction writer, although he labors over his lengthy novel every day. To make ends meet, he works in a school teaching foreigners to speak English.

He whimsically drags his students out to the country house of his idol, the reclusive author Evan Gorley-Peters (Robert Urquhart). Stephen knows the writer’s classic Sharma Trilogy practically by heart, and he’s always dreamed of meeting the man. While they stand outside the grounds and look around, a young woman rides up: Natasha (Suzanne Burden), Gorley-Peters’ daughter, out exercising her horse.

She and Stephen speak, he calls her later, and a date is set. But when Stephen arrives at her house for lunch, he seems more interested in meeting the great author than in wooing Natasha, who’s not too pleased about the turn of events. Neither, for that matter, is Gorley-Peters, an aloof gentleman who greets Stephen’s babbling conversational sallies with bemused disbelief.

For Stephen, this period of ingratiation is leading up to one crucial moment, when he will ask his hero to read his rough-draft manuscript. This becomes the central event in the film.

Gilbert’s directorial touch is light and sure (in the production notes, Gilbert cites Francois Truffaut as a stylistic inspiration, and you can see the influence here). It’s easy to get caught up in Stephen’s excitement, but at the same time Gilbert doesn’t let you forget the touching Natasha, who sometimes gets short shrift from Stephen.

Above all, it’s a marvelous trio of actors that holds our attention. Maloney is bright-eyed and buoyant; Burden is sad-eyed and moving; Urquhart is just what you’d expect a remote scribe to be: magisterial, distant, interested in details (he quizzes Stephen about the current costs of the London subways).

I was so captivated by these people and their situation, it didn’t even matter much to me that Gilbert’s script gives them perhaps too little to do. And the movie remains resolutely modest, which appears to be the hallmark of the “First Love” series. They’re gems, but intentionally small ones.

First published in the Herald, April 25, 1986

In its own way, and maybe partly because of its obscurity, this movie is one of my most fondly-remembered films of the 1980s. And its level wasn’t unique in the Puttnam-produced “First Love” series, which included Michael Apted’s splendid Kipperbang and also Arthur’s Hallowed Ground, a movie about a groundskeeper who has meticulously maintained a cricket pitch for many decades—exactly the kind of movie you’d expect to be the only directing project from David Lean’s cinematographer, Freddie Young. But Sharma is just lovely, and I remember it gave my twentysomething self a hint of “If I made movies, this is the kind of movie I would make” (Gilbert liked Truffaut too, after all, it said so in the press kit). Maybe that’s why I take it as a personal disappointment that Gilbert’s film-directing career has not quite reached its promise, despite the odd title of interest. (Plus I used to confuse him with Brian Gibson, a Brit who did What’s Love Got to Do with It, and who I’m sorry to say died in 2004.)

There were movies that used the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh before this one did, and as The King’s Speech proved, it’s still a go-to piece. I can’t argue with that, although it might be nice if they came up with something else. IMDb says that Tom Wilkinson is in the cast. Sharma was a rare lead for Michael Maloney, who does such excellent work as a second-level player in movies (he played Rosencrantz and Laertes for Mel Gibson’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlets, respectively; he’ll probably be old enough for Polonius when Justin Bieber gets around to his version). On stage Maloney gets to do more. I saw him play Prince Hal to Robert Stephens’ Falstaff on stage, and he was in full command. In fact, the second-tier status of the people behind Sharma and Beyond fits the movie’s feel just perfectly.