Big (United States, 1988)

July 20, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Big Poster

Big came out of nowhere during the summer of 1988 and captured universal raves. More than two decades later, despite indications of dating, it remains a popular motion picture, in large part because it's one the few "body swap" movies - a popular subgenre at the time of its release - to actually work. The film is funny, sweet, and even a little edgy. It's also emotionally honest and almost never crass - two things that differentiate it from its contemporaries, which included Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, and 18 Again. Credit goes where credit is deserved: to the actors, the director, and the entire production team, who make us believe that Tom Hanks really is a 13-year old boy in a 30-year old man's body.

The film opens in a time that is most definitely the late 1980s. More than most films, the authenticity of the era rings true here (the computer adventure game, the Yankees ball players, the hair and clothing styles), making it a haven for those with a longing for a late-'80s rush of nostalgia. Although the desire of director Penny Marshall and her production team was to establish a sense of contemporary authenticity, she inadvertently created an evocative period piece. Big is a nearly perfect time capsule.

Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a New Jersey teenager who is in many ways a typical 13-year old boy. He hangs out with his best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton), plays games on his computer, groans when his mom asks him to take out the trash, and is too insecure to approach the pretty girl he likes. More than anything, Josh wants to be bigger (or older). It's the wish of many kids, who see adulthood as a promised land. Ironically, given the choice, many adults would happily re-live their childhood for another shot at the innocence and lack of responsibility represented by those early years. This is a lesson Josh learns during the course of Big.

One night while hanging out at a traveling carnival, Josh discovers a machine (called "Zoltar Speaks") that offers to fulfill a wish. The next morning, when he awakens, his deepest desire has been realized: he no longer looks like David Moscow; he's Tom Hanks. The problems are obvious - his clothing doesn’t fit, his mother doesn't recognize him (although his toddler sister does), and he has nowhere to go. He eventually manages to convince Billy of the truth - that he's Josh and not an adult predator - and Billy helps to install Josh in a New York City fleebag dive. Together, they fill out the necessary paperwork to learn the carnival's next destination, but it will take six weeks for the information to come through. In the meantime, Josh needs money, so he has to find a job.

He applies for a position as a data entry worker at MacMillan Toys, and he is soon singled out by the company's owner (Robert Loggia) for his youthful enthusiasm. After an encounter at FAO Schwartz, which involves the unforgettable giant piano walk (which was performed by the actors without doubles), Josh is promoted to Vice President of Product Development - a dream job for a 13-year old, since it involves playing with toys all day. Josh also captures the eye of Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), who is attracted to his innocence. The more time Josh spends in his new body, the more reluctant he is to return to 13 years old, until Billy reminds him of some harsh truths.

Big pays a great deal of attention to the continuity between the 13-year old Josh and the 30-year old version. Hanks gets the mannerisms right. This is a combination of dedicated acting and strong preparation. Marshall rehearsed many of the grown-up Josh scenes with David Moscow performing the role so Hanks could observe how the younger actor would react in those situations, and Hanks and Moscow spent time together even though they never share a scene. The result is so effective that it's almost a little unsettling when the relationship between adult Josh and Susan turns sexual.

There are no true villains in the movie, which allows the plot to unfold in a natural, relaxed manner. The closest thing to a traditional bad guy is Susan's co-worker/boyfriend, Paul, played by John Heard. However, while Paul occasionally hassles Josh at work, things don't go any further. There are none of the expected staples involving attempts by Paul to ruin Josh at work or at home. Paul remains in the background, a minor antagonist. This allows the conflict to be internal - should Josh continue in his new life with all of its perks and responsibilities, or should he return to how things were, leaving behind a lucrative career and loving girlfriend in order not to lose his teenage years?

Although Big is generally lighthearted, it rarely plays for stupid laughs. There are a few of these, but the film avoids sacrificing character integrity for the cheap guffaw. Comedic highlights include Josh's first taste of caviar, his solution to eating small corn cobs, and his reaction to Susan's question about "sleeping over." ("Okay, but I get to be on top!") There are also some surprisingly effective dramatic moments. The most memorable of these occurs on Josh's first night in New York. In unfamiliar surroundings without a friendly face in miles, he is frightened and lonely. Hanks plays the scene convincingly, conveying the difference between the fantasy of suddenly being "big" and the reality of the situation.

Big came at the time in Tom Hanks' career when he was transitioning from a mostly comedic actor whose range was questioned into his position as this generation's Jimmy Stewart. Big occurred about mid-way between Splash, which introduced him to the big screen world, and Philadelphia, which won him his first Oscar. The range and likeability that would serve him well in pictures like Forrest Gump and Saving Private Ryan is in evidence here. He earned his first Oscar nomination for playing Josh and, although he lost to Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), it was a harbinger of things to come. It's interesting to note that when potential scheduling conflicts made Hanks' availability to film Big questionable, Robert De Niro was pegged as his replacement. No matter how hard I try, I cannot envision De Niro as Josh.

Although this is Hanks' movie, he is surrounded by a solid supporting cast. David Moscow, like many child actors, has not gone on to stardom, although he did have one other major motion picture role, starring opposite Christian Bale in Newsies. Elizabeth Perkins was selected after the filmmakers viewed her performance in About Last Night… Big shifted her career into high gear. Robert Loggia, often a heavy, relishes the opportunity to play a post-Christmas Eve Scrooge. And John Heard, also cast against type, enjoys playing someone thoroughly detestable.

Big represented the second feature directorial stint for Penny Marshall, following 1986's Jumpin' Jack Flash. This was the beginning of a short stretch in which the ex-Laverne and Shirley actress was viewed as a reliable commercial director. She got to work with De Niro in her next movie, Awakenings, then re-teamed with Hanks for A League of Their Own. After that, she sort of faded away, at least as a director. Her last excursion behind the cameras was 2001's Riding in Cars with Boys. (Too bad her brother, Garry, didn't follow her lead and stop making movies.) Marshall had some talented behind-the-scenes support on Big. The screenplay was written by Anne Spielberg (Steven's sister) and Gary Ross (who would eventually make his directorial debut with Pleasantville), and the cinematographer was Barry Sonnenfeld (Get Shorty, Men in Black).

Big was a pleasure to watch in 1988 and it's no less enjoyable 20-plus years later. As fish out of water stories go, this is one of the best, right up there alongside Crocodile Dundee from the same general time period. Its central "grass is always greener" theme about youth and maturity will ring true for nearly everyone who watches. And it successfully avoids most of the obvious traps: overt jokiness, crassness, schmaltz, too many plot contrivances, and a weak ending. Big stood tall upon its release and the passage of years has not diminished its stature.

Note: An "Extended Edition" of the movie is available. The 20-plus minutes of additional material does little to change the overall thrust, but it impedes the pacing. None of the new footage is critical, and the possibly apocryphal "alternate ending" (which has been rumored to exist for years) is nowhere to be found. Although nothing in the "Extended Edition" should necessarily have remained on the cutting room floor, neither is any of it indispensible. Unless you’re a Big completist, the original theatrical edition is the one to see. The filmmakers knew what they were doing when they trimmed this (and the "Extended Edition" is not being touted as a "Director's Cut").

Big (United States, 1988)

Director: Penny Marshall
Cast: Tom Hanks, David Moscow, Jared Rushton, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard
Screenplay: Gary Ross & Anne Spielberg
Cinematography: Barry Sonnenfeld
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 1988-06-03
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1