The Big switch

13 Going On 30

Jennifer Garner learns the mag trade from the experts in <i>13 Going On 30</i>. Nice spackle, too.

Jennifer Garner learns the mag trade from the experts in 13 Going On 30. Nice spackle, too.

Rated 2.0

The new movie 13 Going On 30 is really the old movie Big, with Jennifer Garner of TV’s Alias playing a gender-switching version of the role that got Tom Hanks his first Oscar nomination. If you can put Big out of your mind, you might have a pretty good time at this uncredited remake. Then again, putting Big out of your mind probably would require major brain surgery, and you might forget where you parked your car.

The 13-year-old of the title is Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen), a gawky eighth-grader in 1987 whose best friend is a classmate named Matt Flamhaff (Jack Salvatore Jr.). Pudgy and eager as a puppy, Matt is the school “freakazoid,” a dweeb and a compulsive shutterbug who takes pictures everywhere he goes.

Jenna knows that Matt is her best friend—what she doesn’t know is that he’s her only friend. She thinks she’s also friends with a snooty clique called “the Six Chicks” (who stride through the school halls the way you only see them do in movies, looking like they own the place, with some retro 1980s tune—I think it was “Venus”—pacing them on the soundtrack). Jenna doesn’t even notice that she has to promise to write the Chicks’ term papers before they’ll agree to come to her birthday party.

The party is a disaster. Jenna is ditched by her so-called friends, including the cute guy she’s got a crush on, and only Matt is left to celebrate with her. Jenna, of course, blames him—the freakazoid—for driving the cool kids away. She yells that she hates him, never wants to see him again, and cowers tearfully in her closet clutching a copy of Poise, her favorite magazine (think “Cosmo”). Repeating a mantra she read in the mag, she wishes she could get shut of these horrible teen years—she wants to be “30 and flirty and thriving.”

Jenna gets her wish. When she wakes up the next day, she finds herself in the sleek body of Jennifer Garner (30 and flirty and thriving, indeed!). Unlike what happened in Big, though, it’s not really the next day; it’s actually 2004. Jenna may still feel 13 inside, but, in fact, she has lived through the intervening 17 years. Not only that, but it would seem she has everything she always wanted: She’s the editor of Poise magazine, and her assistant is Lucy (Judy Greer), the cool chick she kissed up to in junior high.

But Jenna misses Matt. So, she looks him up (it takes her about five seconds to track him down) and finds that he’s now a struggling photographer living in Greenwich Village (and played by Mark Ruffalo). He’s puzzled that Jenna has gone to the trouble to find him. He hasn’t seen her since high school, when she was frankly a snotty little bitch. Their friendship is ancient history. And he’s engaged to be married.

Seeing Garner larking about like a wide-eyed kid is the chief pleasure of 13 Going On 30, and it’s certainly a great career move, taking her about as far as possible from the brooding, heavy-breathing mix of The X-Files and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. that she stars in on TV. Garner throws herself into the part with infectious relish and physical grace (when Jenna revives a flagging party by leading a dance to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” Garner shows that she’s a pretty good dancer, too).

There’s the germ of a powerful theme in the script by Cathy Yuspa, Josh Goldsmith and Niels Mueller, but having planted the seed, they don’t cultivate it. They and director Gary Winick are so intent on slavishly recycling Big—almost scene for scene—that they don’t even seem to notice the one original idea in their story: how a woman can wake up one day and find that she doesn’t like the person she’s become, wondering how it all happened and if there’s any way to set it right. This allegory goes unexplored; even the mechanics of the plot are cursory and half-baked—a major subplot about what the adult Jenna’s been up to is thrown away and passes almost without a bump, crammed so hastily into the closing minutes that we hardly notice it.

13 Going On 30 is the kind of movie in which the writers and director think a cute idea will carry the day. Fortunately for them, Garner just might have the stuff to be a major star. She certainly does more for Yuspa, Goldsmith, Mueller and Winick than they do for her.