Film Reviews: Thursday, April 21, 2004
I’m a ’Big’ Girl Now

Jennifer Garner cuts loose in 13 Going on 30. Too bad the filmmakers don’t.

By Kristian Lin

13 Going on 30 begins in 1987, as young Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) is humiliated at her 13th birthday party by the cool girls from school whom she’s trying to impress. Crushed, she wishes she were 30 years old and as poised as the models in Poise, her favorite women’s magazine. When she wakes up the next morning, she finds that she’s been magically transported to the present day and is a VIP at that same publication. She’s also played by Jennifer Garner.

Yes, there was another Hollywood film 16 years ago that was also about a kid trapped in an older person’s body, which turned another tv actor into a huge movie star. The comparisons to Big are already rolling in. Besides the main character’s gender, the biggest difference is that Big is much lighter and more effortless and doesn’t pretend to be about anything except its story. Hanks’ character never had to give a speech about What It All Means.

Unfortunately, 13 Going on 30 falls in step with Hollywood formula and indulges in that sentiment. The movie’s point is that 13-year-old Jenna doesn’t like the 30-year-old self that she’s become. Nor, for that matter, does anyone else. She’s known at work as a conniving backstabber, she’s cheating on her boyfriend with a colleague’s husband, and her best friend at the office (Judy Greer) is actively plotting against her. (Movies always portray people who work at women’s magazines as shallow corporate fashionistas. For all I know, this is perfectly true to real life, but cinematically, it’s a stale cliché.)

Of course, the real point of this movie’s existence is letting Garner be funny. She keeps her bubbly personality carefully under wraps on her tv show Alias, and it’s completely understandable that she’d want to cut loose and have some fun. The role of a kid in an adult body fits her “I’m not really that hot, am I?” act exceptionally well, and she proves to be an excellent physical comedienne: Note the way she indicates her newfound breasts by mashing them together or how she unexpectedly rallies the troops at a gloomy business meeting and celebrates by taking a triumphant bite out of the Fruit Roll-Up that’s twirled around her index finger. Her dance number with a bunch of preteen girls set to Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” is a delightfully spontaneous thing. (The same can’t be said for the bigger number set to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” a labored piece that’s supposed to be a comic highlight and instead lands with a thud.)

She has some good help. Greer brings a welcome astringency to the project, and Andy Serkis, out of his Gollum costume, gives an elegant performance as Jenna’s boss. As Matt, the childhood best friend who matures into a guy Jenna falls in love with, Mark Ruffalo is left with a role that’s traditionally unrewarding (as equivalent female parts in movies about men tends to be), but he brings a sly wit to it. This actor has never distinguished himself in a movie that was embraced by a mass audience, but his work here in a nice-guy role contrasts with his dangerous detective in In the Cut and his dorky technician in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and helps give an idea of his astonishing range.

The director here is Gary Winick, who turned some heads a couple of years ago when he made Tadpole, a sophomoric romantic comedy that nevertheless represented a technical breakthrough because it was shot on digital video. In this more conventional setting, he shows himself to be a rather ordinary director, without any quirks of sensibility or imagination that might stand out. His writers, Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, do a fair job with the gags, but they also turn too serious near the end. Jenna approaches Matt the same way any other Hollywood romantic lead would, by giving heartfelt speeches and vowing to change. (That romance is chaste, by the way. In Big, the boy in a man’s body gets to have sex. I don’t remember anyone batting an eye about this in 1988. Grown-up Jenna remains grossed out by the thought of doing it with a guy, which is funny, but wouldn’t she be at least a little curious? Sure she would, but a mainstream movie today won’t go there, which is one thing that’s wrong with mainstream movies.) The writers would have been better off satirizing corporate culture by filtering it through a 13-year-old’s sensibility. They let that opportunity slip.

Still, the sheer wattage of Jennifer Garner’s smile and her skill at taking pratfalls is undeniably charming. At the climax of 13 Going on 30, Jenna tells her bosses about the importance of “bringing laughter and fun and silliness back” to women’s magazines. As long as this movie concentrates on those same qualities, it does all right.

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