Thank goodness there's finally a movie that redeems the '80s. Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees can finally play all her old Blondie and Adam Ant albums again.
For some, 13 feels like it was just yesterday. For Jenna, it was.
13 Going on 30 proves that Jennifer Garner can be more than the tough action chick she has embodied in Alias and Daredevil. It proves that she can be very, very funny. Call me jaded, but it seems to me that we have plenty of actresses who can wear black leather and kick butt, whereas finding such a gifted and charming comedienne is truly something to celebrate. Garner's transcendent performance is reason enough to see 13 Going on 30, but this surprisingly moving fantasy boasts many other stellar qualities as well, including a strong screenplay, a winning performance by Mark Ruffalo (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Andy Serkis, Gollum himself, doing the moon walk. Put on your jellies, turn up your collar, and prepare to flash back to the '80s for a thoroughly—I mean, totally—delightful movie.
Facts of the Case
It's 1987, and 13-year-old Jenna Rink is dying to be one of the Six Chicks, the popular girls who rule junior high. Unfortunately, she and her best friend Matt are hopelessly uncool, and Jenna's efforts to fit in only end in social humiliation. When her 13th birthday party turns into a disaster, Jenna desperately wishes to be just like the women in Poise, her favorite magazine: "thirty, flirty, and thriving."
And thanks to a little wishing dust, suddenly she is. Suddenly it's the year 2004, and Jenna's life has been transformed. Unfortunately, the last 17 years have zipped by without leaving a trace in her memory, and Jenna is confronted with a strange man who calls her "Sweetbottom," a new best friend she doesn't know, and a high-powered job at Poise, when mentally she's still just a junior high misfit. She seeks out her old friend, Matt, as her anchor of sanity in this strange new existence, but it turns out that Matt (Ruffalo) is no longer a presence in her life. The more Jenna learns about the last 17 years and the life she leads as a thirty-year-old, the more she realizes that she's going to have to face the unpleasant consequences of decisions she made long ago—many of which she doesn't even remember making. With her career and her relationship with Matt at stake, Jenna sets out to reinvent herself—again.
At first 13 Going on 30 looked like it was going to be just a distaff Big, a retread of the child-in-an-adult-body formula that, fittingly enough, flourished in the '80s. We quickly find out that there's more going on, however. Unlike its more naïve counterparts in the body-switch genre, 13 Going on 30 has a distinctly bittersweet quality. It's aware that rash decisions we make, even at the young age of 13, can shape the rest of our lives, sometimes taking them in disastrous or tragic directions. Although at first Jenna thinks that the granting of her wish has made all her dreams come true, she comes to realize that "thirty, flirty, and thriving" left a lot of loopholes. When she made her wish she was thinking along shallow and self-serving lines, and the thirty-year-old Jenna is the complete embodiment of those traits. Now that Jenna sees her own future, she finds she has a lot of damage to undo…if it's not too late.
This tinge of regret gives the film more substance than its marketing would suggest. We can probably all relate to wishing to be someone else (older, more sophisticated, more popular, all of the above), but the older we get, the more we become aware of things we wish we had done or not done, of wishing we had turned out differently. In these respects we can really empathize with our heroine as she travels toward wisdom. 13 Going on 30 actually becomes a film about second chances, more akin to It's a Wonderful Life than Tom Hanks's child's-eye-view odyssey in Big. In a sense, the fantasy device of Jenna's wish functions as a way of showing what can happen when we emotionally absent ourselves from our lives.
But enough of the serious stuff. This film is primarily a comedy, and as a comedy it excels. There are so many great set pieces to be derived from the situation of the 13-year-old in an adult woman's body, and the screenplay gets them exactly right. Scenes like those in which adult Jenna hits on a cute junior high kid and bonds with her neighbors' daughters at a slumber party are pure joy. In addition, the clash between the '80s culture Jenna is steeped in and the new 2004 world makes for a lot of humor as well: Just watching Jenna experience the ringing of a cell phone is one of the funniest things I've seen in a long time. Viewers who remember all the '80s touchstones in the film, from pop rocks to Casio keyboards, will get a big kick out of the affectionate nostalgia that runs throughout the film. The standout scene in which Jenna leads a bunch of sophisticates in a spontaneous performance of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" dance is alone worth the purchase price.
In the challenging role of the outwardly adult Jenna, Garner hits it out of the park. There's nothing self-aware or coy about her performance; she really seems to remember what it's like being 13, and she embodies all the awkward enthusiasm and self-consciousness of adolescence. She's not afraid to let herself look foolish, which is indispensable in a physical comedienne, yet she's honest and touching in the more serious scenes as well. Garner never strikes a false note, and she wins us over completely. We can't help loving Jenna and wanting her to make her life work. As her estranged best friend, Ruffalo is also a major part of what makes the film work. Next to Jenna's flashy new colleagues, he offers a more grounded and straightforward persona as well as a casual, drowsy charm. Warm but wary, Matt is every bit as lovable as Jenna, yet he's also so believable that he seems to be a real person rather than an amalgamation of good writing and superior acting. Ruffalo provides both the perfect foil for the effervescent Garner and a strong emotional undercurrent for the film.
The excellent supporting cast features particularly enjoyable turns by Sam Ball (Pumpkin) as Jenna's complacent celebrity boyfriend and Andy Serkis (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) as Jenna's flamboyant, high-strung boss. The young actors who play the adolescent versions of Jenna and Matt turn in excellent performances that mesh beautifully with those of their adult counterparts. Kathy Baker (Edward Scissorhands) is the perfect maternal presence as Jenna's mother, warm and understanding. As Jenna's brittle career-gal best friend, Judy Greer brings quirky yet understated humor as well as a slightly darker, more jaded perspective to the film.
Although the film itself would be well worth a purchase even in a barebones release, Columbia TriStar gives us a special edition with many, many goodies to add to the fun. We get two commentaries: one by director Gary Winick (Tadpole), which is an interesting education on the contrast between filming a big-budget mainstream film and a low-budget indie, and one by the three producers, who repeat some of the same information but offer a more nostalgic and conversational approach. One of my favorite featurettes is the eight-minute "I Was a Teenage Geek," in which Garner, Ruffalo, Ball, and Greer reminisce about their teenage years. We even get to see old photos of the four actors, which show just how geeky some of them were. The 19-minute "Making of a Teen Dream" is a fairly standard but pleasant making-of piece that offers insight into the challenges of filming on New York locations and trying to recapture the '80s. The photo gallery is an animated two-minute montage of publicity stills and behind-the-scenes photos.
For '80s buffs, standout extras are the two music videos for songs featured in the film: Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl" and Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield." (It would have made sense to include "Thriller" as well, but I imagine legalities, or financial considerations, prohibited its inclusion.) There are also two games, "The '80s Outfit Challenge" and "Then and Now," which are pretty trifling affairs ("Then and Now" in particular seems like nothing more than an excuse for more product placement) but which reward winners with additional interview clips. Far more worthwhile are the deleted and extended scenes. In some cases, the deleted material consists of just a line or two of dialogue, but there are entire scenes here whose presence would have been welcome in the final version of the film, like a fun montage in which the adult Jenna plays with her new wardrobe. I especially enjoyed the scene in which Jenna's adolescent neighbor gives her romantic advice. Finally, we get the original trailer. Altogether, this is an attractive assortment of extras, well worthy of the designation of this disc as a special edition.
As regards audio and video, there is absolutely nothing that seems out of place or flawed here. The surround mix seems perfectly balanced and full, and the '80s tunes have never sounded better, except perhaps for those lucky souls who got to see Rick Springfield and the Talking Heads live. The image is bright, clear, and beautiful, even in the night scenes, and the colors are bold and vibrant without being cartoony.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As strong as it is, the screenplay does have some weaknesses. There are some flaws in the film's logic that nagged at me, and '80s survivors will notice that the film is a bit careless in its depiction of 1987 (and, for that matter, of a 1987 girl choosing a 2004 wardrobe). And although the characters are convincingly drawn for the most part, there are some awkward places where it's obvious that the screenplay is speaking, not the characters. Also, the film does rush a little bit in its haste to get to Jenna's wish, and this slightly hurried pace means that hunks of exposition sometimes land with a thud instead of passing as natural conversation. Still, these are pretty minor issues for a film that is so much fun, and I seriously doubt that they'll dim anyone's enjoyment for more than a moment or two.
I laughed, I cried, I sang along with "Love Is a Battlefield." If you're a fan of Jennifer Garner or Mark Ruffalo, you must see this film so that you can experience their wonderful work. If you just like feel-good movies and want to see an outstanding example of the genre, look no further. 13 Going on 30 is a treat to warm the heart, lift the spirits, and maybe even make you cut footloose.
Jennifer Garner is hereby granted diplomatic immunity: Unless she seriously transgresses in the future, she will not be found guilty in this court. Columbia TriStar is commended for their respect for the meaning of the term "special edition." Case dismissed!
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• Commentary by Director Gary Winick
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