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maryann johanson | self-isolating

13 Going on 30 (review)

Steal Little, Steal Big

You won’t stop expecting Tom Hanks to jump in and dance out “Chopsticks” on the big flat piano on the floor, and there’s even a party scene in which you can just about glimpse him in the background, in his hilariously inappropriate white tails, nibbling a miniature corncob. Cuz it’s Big — it is. And even for Hollywood, where originality is low on the list of priorities and stealing is fair game, this fluffball of a flick tries its damnedest to be so blatant in its theft that you can’t believe they got away with it.
But it’s worse. This isn’t Big for Girls, it’s the anti Big, the Spock with a goatee and a dagger Big, evil and ugly and mean and petty where Big was sweet and cuddly and warm and huggable. Oh, it thinks it’s sweet and huggable, with its pink sparkly opening credits and charmingly goofy Jennifer Garner (Daredevil, Catch Me If You Can) tottering around on Sex and the City stilettos and squealing in chaste distaste while her hunky lunk of a boyfriend strolls around her fabulous! apartment in nothing but a little towel. But that’s all just a little towel over the ugliness of Hollywood’s typically dismal view of women.

The thing is, Jenna Rink is 13 years old (and played by Shana Dowdeswell) in 1987 when, after an application of “Wishing Dust,” she wakes up the next morning in the year 2004, where cell phones freak her out — the ringing, the ringing coming from everywhere! — and she is Jennifer Garner and “30 and flirty and thriving,” precisely the desirable state of womanhood her favorite magazine, Poise, had been telling girls they should be in. And ohmigod! She’s an editor at Poise! The ensuing depiction of magazine publishing as glamorous combined with the ensuing naivete about how magazine publishing actually works might be forgiven if this were just a fantasy of dreamy 13-year-old Jenna’s, but it’s presented as real. This ain’t Dorothy hallucinating about Oz: it’s Back to the Future in reverse, or a preemptive It’s a Wonderful Life. Cuz oh yes, the “tough bitch” that Jenna is delighted to discover her 30-year-old self is ain’t so delightful, and change will be required.

What does it say about our perceptions of women today that there’s nothing satirical about the presentation of a 13-year-old filling in for a supposedly high-powered magazine editor, and no one notices? Tom Hanks’s overgrown kid charmed the adults around him with his seemingly fresh perspective on life and his lack of artifice, but Jenna fits right into the catty culture of chic urban gals who are barely distinguishable from the Six Chicks, the bitchy, popularity-obsessed teenage gang she so desperately wanted to be a member of — indeed, one of the Six Chicks (Judy Greer: Adaptation, The Wedding Planner) is now her rival editor at Poise and her best friend. Jenna’s ecstatic — she’s in. She’s popular. She practically does a That Girl!, spinning on the sidewalk and tossing a flirty and thriving beret in the air.

And then there’s her old pal Matty, her Doc Brown touchstone of reality in this crazy mixed-up future world even if she did treat him like dirt in order to impress the Six Chicks back when they were 13. As Matt, Mark Ruffalo (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, In the Cut) is cool and cute and real, and the instant — the nanosecond — we meet him grownup in his Converse sneakers and his shabby chic Village apartment, we know he’s the man for her, the real her, the her she might have been if she hadn’t been such a nasty piece of work as a kid.

But here’s the thing: If Jenna couldn’t see through the calculated horribleness of the Six Chicks when she was so determined to be a part of them that she’d do their homework and suffer the indignities they heaped upon her, how does she suddenly see it in the adults around her in the year 2004, particularly when she’s now the alpha female? It’s only the next day for her, after all. So unlike with Big, which left us with the sense that Hanks’s kid will be a better man when he eventually gets there because of his premature foray into the adult world, 13 Going on 30 leaves us with the impression that Jenna, who gets a second chance at growing up, won’t necessarily be a better woman, just one more proficient at swimming with the sharks.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief drug references

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