13 Going on 30 (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's something irresistible about a displaced consciousness story, whether it's an adult occupying the body of a child, a child occupying the body of an adult, or a gender switch. 13 Going on 30 belongs to the same sub-genre as Big, although many of the particulars are different. As films of this sort go, this one is solidly entertaining. It requires that the viewer exhibit a fair amount of willing suspension of disbelief, but buying into the essential premise is more than half the battle. Accept the magic that transports the mind of a 13-year old girl into the future body of her 30-year old self, and little else that director Gary Winick throws out will be difficult to swallow.

The movie opens in 1987. On her 13th birthday, Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) wants nothing more than to be popular and date one of the cutest boys in school. When her best friend, Matt (Jack Salvatore Jr.), remarks that she's better off trying to be original, she retorts, "I don't want to be original. I want to be cool!" (The refrain of so many high school students…) After her birthday party is a disaster, Jenna retreats to a closet to salve her tattered pride, and wishes she could be 30 years old. That's when a sprinkle of pixie dust descends upon her.

When she awakens the next morning, she's still Jenna Rink, but the year is 2004 and she's 30 years old (and now played by Jennifer Garner). She's has a power-house job as an editor for Poise magazine, lives with a star hockey player, and is friends with Lucy (Judy Greer), the girl for whose companionship she craved at 13. Jenna goes through all the expected stages: confusion about what has happened to her life ("it's a dream"), exultation about how great everything is, then panic that she's adrift in a world she doesn't know or understand. So she tracks down the only one she believes she can trust: Matt (now played by Mark Ruffalo) - except he explains that their friendship ended years ago. He eventually relents and agrees to help Jenna, and she begins to feel things for him that she never experienced when they were teenagers.

Many of the weaknesses in 13 Going on 30 are story related. Generally speaking, the movie breezes along at an appealing clip, and it offers a nice moral about not falling for the "grass is always greener" myth. But there are some things that could have been done better. For example, the film almost completely ignores the Rip Van Winkle aspect of the tale. Anyone suddenly catapulted 17 years into the future would enter a major technology warp. 13 Going on 30 only briefly addresses this (Jenna is confused by a cell phone). And the idea that a magazine about "real women who are smart and pretty and happy to be who they are" is likely to win a circulation war with a celebrity gossip magazine is blatantly ridiculous.

The film's primary asset is Jennifer Garner, who is in the process of parlaying her success in the TV series "Alias" into a film career. Garner is wonderful as Jenna, and we have no trouble accepting her as a child trapped in an adult's body. Like Jamie Lee Curtis in the recent Freaky Friday remake, she gets all the mannerisms right, and nothing about the way she acts is over-the-top or too cute. The chemistry between her and co-star Mark Ruffalo is just right - affectionate without being overly sexual. And Ruffalo, who is sometimes abrasive, is warm and endearing.

This is Gary Winick's follow-up to Tadpole, the story of an extremely intelligent teenage boy who flirts with older women. Winick brings the same mixture of sensitivity and humor to this project. The first fifteen minutes, which focus on Jenna's 13th birthday, could easily have been built upon a foundation of formula-driven clichés about teen angst. Instead of taking that effortless route, however, Winick brings us something that's real, and will take many viewers back to their bittersweet high school years. A few minutes into 13 Going on 30, I knew I was in capable hands. Ultimately, the movie may not be as good, uplifting, or perceptive as Big, but it's one of the better teen girl-themed films of the year, and can be enjoyed by viewers of either gender in any age group.

13 Going on 30 (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2004-04-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1