Sure, on the surface 13 Going on 30 is not a whole lot more than Big with boobs, but the new film has an agreeable charm and considerably more emotional resonance than its obvious inspiration (not to mention that star Jennifer Garner’s actions seem more believable than those of Tom Hanks in Big).
Where Big merely aged its character, 13 actually propels its protagonist, Jenna Rink, from her 13th to her 30th year — complete with 17 years of a life she doesn’t remember, and now has to deal with. This ups the dramatic ante considerably, especially since Jenna has gotten everything she ever wished for, as Oscar Wilde once cautioned against trying. (Someone somewhere along the way had the wit to prominently stick a copy of Richard Ellman’s biography of Wilde on the bookshelves in the Mark Ruffalo character’s bedroom.)
In Jenna’s case, it’s not so much that getting what she wanted was bad, but that the person she turned into in the process is far from exemplary. It all starts when long-suffering wannabe-boyfriend Matt (here played by Jack Salvatore Jr., Donnie Darko) gives Jenna (here played by Shana Dowdeswell) a package of wishing dust on her 13th birthday. Since it’s already been established that what Jenna wants is to be one of the “cool” girls with a proper jock boyfriend, it’s not hard to guess her wish — especially after the “cool” people play a spectacularly dirty trick on her. Of course, she doesn’t expect the dust to work, and it never occurs to her that should it succeed, she’ll come to missing 17 years of her life and find herself in a strange apartment in Manhattan with a boyfriend she doesn’t know and a job she’s neither aware she has, nor of how to do. That’s the premise on which the bulk of the movie hangs, and while none of it is exactly surprising (partly thanks to a tell-the-whole-story trailer), it’s all handled with a certain amount of style.
As Jenna (now played by Garner) starts piecing together what her life has been in the intervening years, the film starts feeling a bit like Scrooge encountering the Ghost of Christmas Past — and that’s exactly what makes 13 more interesting than Big. There’s genuine pathos in Jenna’s discovering that getting her wish meant dumping Matt (now played by Mark Ruffalo), ignoring her family, getting hooked up with a shallow boor of a hockey player who persists in calling her “Sweet Bottom,” and generally turning herself into one pretty awful person. In other words, she’s become just like the people who once taunted her.
The films poses the question of whether Jenna can regain all that she lost. Considering the type of movie 13 that is, the answer isn’t too hard to guess — and the plot mechanics do get a little tiresome toward the end, because we know exactly where they’re taking us. However, there are some pleasant diversions along the way (the Thriller dance glimpsed in the trailer, and also the photo shoot where Jenna rethinks the magazine she works for), plus there’s genuine chemistry between Garner and Ruffalo, as well as between Garner and Andy Serkis (yes, Gollum from The Lord of the Rings), who plays her excitable boss. In fact, there’s some pretty good chemistry between Garner and everybody in the cast.
With 13 Going on 30, former indie filmmaker Gary Winnick crosses over into the big leagues without utterly selling out in the bargain (he puckishly includes a gag where Jenna “comes on” to a teenage boy, by way of referencing his own Tadpole). While the actual ending feels very clumsy and the film, as I mentioned earlier, flirts with wearing out its welcome, as agreeable fluff, it’s still better than most.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke