BY LYNN LEE
13 Going on 30 is the kind of movie that you probably either really want to see or really don’t. (More than for even your average “chick flick,” that division is likely to fall pretty starkly along gender lines – if the estrogen-heavy audience I watched it with is at all representative.) I was in the “must see” camp because I fell in love with the movie trailer. I didn’t quite fall in love with the movie. That said, I had a lot of fun watching Jennifer Garner play a 13-year-old from the mid-’80s trapped in the body of, well, Jennifer Garner today. And I’m sure the film will have particular appeal to women who grew up in the ’80s and might still have a few jelly bracelets hidden at the bottom of a dresser drawer somewhere.
It’s Jenna Rink’s 13th birthday in 1987, and Jenna, desperate to join the “in” crowd of girls at her school, has invited them all to her birthday party. She’s so intent on winning them over that she brushes aside the wiser advice of her faithful friend and next door neighbor, Matt, a dumpy, artsy kid who’s too cool to try to be cool. Predictably, she gets humiliated by the cool cruel girls at her own party, and ends up in a closet wishing miserably that she were “thirty and flirty and thriving” – a phrase picked up from her favorite women’s magazine, Poise. The next morning she wakes up, it’s 2004, and her wish has apparently been granted: she’s a top editor at Poise, with a fabulous apartment in New York, a closet full of designer clothes and shoes, a hot guy who plays for the Rangers, and best of all, the face and body of Jennifer Garner.
At first wildly discombobulated by the time and culture warp, her new breasts, and her boyfriend’s nudity, Jenna moves quickly from delight at discovering all her preteen dreams have come true to discomfort as she comes to realize how she achieved them. She finds herself hunting down her former best friend, Matt (Mark Ruffalo), to help her piece together what happened. She’s confronted with two surprises. The first is that Matt has grown up to become a super-cute photographer living in (of course) the West Village. The second is less pleasant: they haven’t been friends since that disastrous birthday party, when she abandoned him and subsequently became a popular chick after all. Since then, she learns, she evidently rose up the ladder by backstabbing and manipulating others and having no consideration for those below her in the pecking order – in short, by being just like Lucy (Judy Greer), a fellow editor at Poise and former leader of the school clique who rejected her at thirteen, now her best gal pal,
The rest of the movie traces Jenna’s coming to terms with these facts and trying to reassess the choices she’s made as an adult, as well as rebuild her friendship with Matt. It succeeds not because of the plot, which is weak at best, but because of the inspired casting. Garner is hugely appealing as the displaced 13-year-old, with her awkward clumpy walk, her giddy enthusiasm, and her attraction to outré ’80s styles (now fashionably retro) and flouncy, frilly, girly outfits that sit somewhat awkwardly on her muscular shoulders but thereby accentuate the disjunction between Jenna’s little-girl-inside and outward vamp. Indeed, she’s so endearing I couldn’t quite buy into the idea that her Jenna could ever have grown up to become what she did; I was half expecting the movie to end with the whole thing being “just a dream.” (Fortunately, it doesn’t.) Garner’s performance doesn’t have the shadings or subtlety of Tom Hanks’s in the classic Big, but then Big was at bottom a much more serious and bittersweet film than 13 Going on 30, which is less effective as a morality tale than as a dress-up fantasy for current teenage girls (talk about mixed messages), a shot of nostalgia for twentysomething women, and a vehicle for Garner to broaden her star appeal. (It seems unlikely many Alias fans will be in line for this movie, though you never know.)
13 Going on 30 also benefits from tart supporting turns by Greer as the amusingly bitchy Lucy and Andy Serkis (aka Smeagol/Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies), as her dapper, slightly manic boss at Poise. But the smartest move was casting Ruffalo, who adds just the right touch of clear-eyed sobriety to bring Garner’s Jenna down to earth. If the film sports its glossy facades even as it purports to show the hollowness behind them, it’s Ruffalo who gives a tantalizing glimpse of what the alternatives might be. He’s the real deal, the one adult amid a crowd of children – not just Jenna – who never really grew up. At the same time, his thoughtfulness sets off Garner’s radiance, which is the real point of the movie. Adulthood may bring tough choices, but girls just wanna have fun.