You won’t stop expecting Tom Hanks to jump in and dance out “Chopsticks” on the oversized flat piano on the floor. 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. Because 13 Going on 30 is Big—it is. Even for Hollywood, where originality is low on the list of priorities and stealing is fair game, this fluffball 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, ugly and mean and petty where Big was sweet and warm and huggable. Oh, it thinks it’s sweet and huggable, with its pink sparkly opening credits and charmingly goofy Jennifer Garner tottering around on Sex and the City stilettos and squealing in chaste distaste while her boyfriend strolls around her fabulous! apartment in nothing but a little towel. But that’s all just a little towel over Hollywood’s typically dismal view of women.
Jenna Rink is 13 years old (played by Shana Dowdeswell) in 1987 when, after an application of “Wishing Dust,” she wakes up the next morning in the year 2004 as Garner, where cell phones freak her out—the ringing coming from everywhere! Overnight she’s “30 and flirty and thriving,” precisely the desirable state of womanhood sold to girls by her favorite magazine, Poise. And ohmigod! She’s an editor at Poise!
The ensuing depiction of magazine publishing as glamorous combined with the ensuing naïveté about how magazine publishing actually works might be forgiven if this were just 13-year-old Jenna’s fantasy, 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. The “tough bitch” that Jenna is delighted to discover her 30-year-old self has become 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 a 13-year-old filling in for a supposedly high-powered magazine editor, and no one notices? Hanks’s overgrown kid charmed adults around him with his seemingly fresh perspective on the toy biz and his lack of artifice, but Jenna fits right into the catty culture of urban gals barely distinguishable from the Six Chicks—the bitchy, popularity-obsessed teen gang she so desperately wanted to be a member of. Indeed, one of the Six Chicks (Judy Greer) 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.
Then there’s her old pal Matty, her touchstone of reality in this crazy mixed-up future world, even if she did treat him like dirt to impress the Six Chicks back when they were 13. As Matt, Mark Ruffalo is cool and cute and real. The nanosecond we meet him grown up in his Converse sneakers and shabby chic Village apartment, we know he’s the man for her, the real 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 suffer the indignities they heaped upon her, how does she suddenly see it in the adults around her in 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’ 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 won’t necessarily be a better woman. She’ll just be more proficient at swimming with the sharks.
13 GOING ON 30,**, Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Judy Greer, Rated PG-13