13 Going on 30
Reviewed in May 2004
Director: Gary Winick. Cast: Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Judy Greer, Andy Serkis, Christa B. Allen, Alex Black, Alexandra Kyle, Kathy Baker, Phil Reeves, Samuel Ball, Lynn Collins, Renee Olstead, Jim Gaffigan. Screenplay: Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa.

Photo © 2004 Revolution Studios/Columbia Pictures
Nick, at 13: This movie is sooo good! I like it as much as Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman, and that is quite a lot, thank you very much. Jennifer Garner is so funny and cute, and is a really good actress, too! I also like the young version of her. It sucks that those other girls and that guy treat her so badly and that she totally walks right into it and is mean to her best friend because she's trying to impress them. I mean, admittedly, he's not the coolest guy, which is why I totally understand him, but she should know way better than to worry about those lame-o's who are already into, like, beer and kissing. Whatever. But I can relate to her feeling kind of left out, too, and wanting to fit in with all that popular-crowd stuff. Like the time I started going with Marie Hazelwood even though I had no idea what "going with" anybody meant, and then she totally broke up with me through the mail, and I found out she'd been going with Mike Oldham the whole time, anyway. Whatever. Back to the movie. I mean, I just think the movie is so fun and bright and colorful, and I love what she wears, like when she puts those four crazy chopsticks in her hair. And I loooove "Love Is a Battlefield," so I think it's totally great that it's in this movie, like three times. This is a fantastic movie, good plot, great characters. I just want to see it again and again. Grade: A

Nick, at not-quite-30: This movie is so good! I like it as much as Steel Magnolias, a fussy but scrappy movie I will always have a soft spot for, and better than Pretty Woman, which reads a little differently once you're post-adolescent. Jennifer Garner does a lot to make the movie work: she is funny and cute, and a really good actress, too! Without the slightest ounce of condescension to the material, Garner infuses the movie with energy and a credible, infectious precocity. She is maybe the only big-name actress in her age group who could pull off the sunny, energetic vibe of an un-sullen 13-year-old but can do so by projecting qualities that are still attractive and engaging in an adult woman, however preciously written. Garner plays the grown-up Jenna (the one-sentence plot has a 13-year-old girl magically waking up in a 30-year-old body) as sincere, abashed, cheerful, well-intentioned, and naïve, rather than air-headed, gawky, or obviously "empowered," three E-Z recipes for botching this concept. Imagine, for example, the terror of watching Reese Witherspoon in this movie, secretly unwilling to hide that steely professional resolve of hers, seemingly auditioning for other, better parts while chinning her way through this comedy. Garner, more than almost any new actress in recent memory, has been indefatigably kid-gloved through magazine spreads, awards ceremonies, and talk shows. Her personal PR machine has occasionally come across like it's homework instead of entertainment: boys and girls, we are being assigned a new star. But though her slightly dizzy perkiness may be cloying to some, her disposition in this performance as in life seems remarkably unaffected, which not only redeems the relentlessness of her celebrity exposure but also makes her perfect for 13 Going on 30. You still catch Garner assembling her performance sometimes, opting for a gesture or scrunching a facial expression in a way that seems a little actressy, but that's just the surface stuff. The spirit she lends the movie and her easy emotional lability, moving from eager-beaver excitement to adult disappointment to gentle seduction, are unfakeable gifts, and they lift the picture up.

The even better news about 13 Going on 30 is that it's more cleverly structured than you might think, its heart is as big as the sky, and the whole project is fun as the dickens. Gary Winick, an all-over-the-place director who perpetrated the dismal, unfunnny Tadpole a couple of years ago, seems to thrive amid far less ambitious material. Rather than sink under the archness of the boy-woman cosmopolitan comedy, he lets the well-cast performers supply the feeling and tone of the movie and focuses his own energy on keeping everything moving at a brisk pace, enveloped in a happily magic-marker color scheme, keeping the humor light for 'tween audiences but involving enough for older ones. There's not a performance out of synch anywhere in the picture, which isn't something you can say about most other movies in 2004, even ones that are much better than 13 Going on 30. Judy Greer, so gleamingly likable in her small role in Adaptation, is a funny, sharp-edged vixen here, without sentencing herself (or being sentenced by the script or direction) to a boring, one-note "villainess" performance. Mark Ruffalo, as Garner's long-lost best friend, would seem to be taking a genre vacation from the tougher going of In the Cut, Collateral, and We Don't Live Here Anymore, but his Matt Flamhaff here is just as grounded and dimensional a character as he usually provides. The lack of cynicism and abundant amiability that unites the whole cast—also to include Christa B. Allen as the young Jenna and Marcia DeBonis as grown up Jenna's hilariously anxious secretary—makes the whole film enormously fresher than its formulaic plot would require.

Speaking of formulas, somewhere along the way 13 Going on 30 veers away from its genetic origins in Big and swipes some key ingredients from My Best Friend's Wedding: a love plot absolutely contingent on hurting a secondary character's feelings, a heroine who seems to have some fierce mettle underneath her scrubbed exterior. Good for 13 Going on 30 for complicating both Jenna and Matt, so that the us-vs.-them dichotomies of high school cliques don't lead to boringly "good" leads and snoringly "bad" foils. Good for the script, too, for threading a small set of disciplined subplots—Jenna's fanciful transformation, her reacquaintance with Matt, and a crisis at the magazine where she works—into a surprisingly complex dilemma, where things start looking really bad just when the genre seems to demand that things start coming up roses. Sure, the movie indulges in quite a bit of easy, campy nostalgia for fluorescent jewelry, Fruit Roll-ups, and MTV videos, and yes, the film is so very WASPy/suburban in its utopian images of bliss (pink dollhouses for humans, pancakes with chocolate-chip smiles), that you're excused if your Cuteness Thermometer starts hitting critical mass. But then again, the movie isn't simple in its nostalgia any more than it is in its wish-fulfillments. You will not begrudge young Jenna her lot in middle school, though the script keeps her distress within reasonable limits; despite all the shiny, materialist trappings of Jenna's older life, full of hatboxes and shoes and seemingly limitless credit cards, even Garner's 'tween-age audience will not deduce that semi-adult life is uncomplicated (or that romance is the only source of later complication). At heart, this is a movie about how caving into false pressures in early life leads plausibly to all kinds of compromises later, and because the film never once takes a moment to pat itself on the back for its strong moral compass, the lesson goes down easy. It's much more fun than, say, Legally Blonde, where Reese's star turn all but pushes the other actors to the walls, and the faux moral about taking blondes seriously is palpably a gimmick, presented as a "message" when the movie knows it isn't one. 13 Going on 30, flyaway though it is, has heart and modest craft where other, similar movies just have plot mechanics.

Plus, the outfit designs are pretty great, and "Love Is a Battlefield" remains a gem. And I do love those chopsticks in her hair. And I did see the movie twice, paying both times. Okay, and I do sort of like Pretty Woman even today. Geez, do you ever really grow up? B

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