13 Going on 30 is best when it’s adorable. Put another way, it’s most effective and most fun when Jennifer Garner acts like she’s 13. The story that gets her to that point is contrived, of course, but it’s hard to care about that when you’re watching her eyes widen as she looks down to “discover” her bouncy new breasts, or galumph across a room bursting with combined nervousness and delight. As Jenna, Garner embodies a joy that’s all too rare on recent movie screens, in adults or kids.
The frame for her charms goes like this: Jenna is suddenly awakened from her 13-year-old incarnation (Shana Dowdeswell) into a 30-year-old body (Garner), stunned to see her adult body and apartment full of designer furniture and expensive outfits. She also finds, much to her horror, that she has a “boyfriend,” a self-absorbed galoot of a New York Ranger (Samuel Ball) who’s wandering around her apartment with only a towel around his waist. “Gross!” she sputters, rushing out the door in her nightgown and a pricey jacket she grabs on her way to the elevator of her fancy high rise apartment building.
Jenna’s confounding initiation occurs just after her younger self has made a fairy-dusted wish to be grown up and popular (inspired by the catchy title of a women’s magazine article, “30, Flirty, and Thriving”). The occasion for the dusting is her 13th birthday, a present from her best friend and next-door neighbor Matt (Jack Salvatore Jr.). He wants only to make her happy, even if it means understanding that she prefers the company of the snotty girls, especially the super-selfish Tom-Tom (Alexandra Kyle), to him.
The girls arrive at the “party,” scheming to exploit Jenna’s willingness to write a class project for them, while she bobbles about like a puppy dog, eager to please at any cost. Matt (whose point of view secures your own sympathy for Jenna, even when she’s less than sensitive to his needs) can only watch in horror as the girls Jenna wants so desperately to please abuse her trust, tell her they’re playing a “game,” and leave her waiting for them, blindfolded in a dark closet.
Their cruelty is compounded by Jenna’s previous ultimate cuteness, again viewed through Matt’s doting and unnoticed gaze. He spots her energetic preparations for her party, including her rehearsing the steps to the video for “Thriller.” This image — Jenna emulating Michael Jackson in 1987 — is revisited a few scenes later, after she has begun to assimilate into her 30-year-old life. As her initial excitement at being a grown-up wears off, Jenna starts feeling pressured by her career and oh yes, that romance with the hockey player. (Garner’s elaborate gasping and cringing when he begins to disrobe recall Lucille Ball’s charismatic comedy.)
Attending yet another party, this time promoting her magazine, Poise, Jenna is enjoined by her boss (Andy Serkis, in the flesh, without digital effects) to liven up the proceedings: everyone is white, skinny, and bored. Jenna knows just the thing: she approaches the DJ (the only black man in the room) and asks him to play “Thriller.” Within minutes, she has all the self-conscious stiffs dancing those ingenious monster steps along with her.
This moment is extra-adorable, not to mention a triumph of hygienic, manic crossover. Tellingly, the delight of the scene (it’s hard not to smile along with Jenna’s uncontainable pleasure), has to do with its evacuation of any weirdness, sexuality, or Michaelness. Jenna’s naïve understanding that Michael was “not like other guys” is here recovered from today’s more cynical interpretations.
Even his famously precise dance is here reclaimed and rejuvenated by Garner’s sweet clumsiness, set against the earnest group choreography, a show that is at once giddy and hopeful, the kind of show put on by so many kids in 1987. It’s also the occasion for Jenna’s reunion with Matt (now played with awkward warmth by Mark Ruffalo), with whom she has lost touch. More specifically, she dissed him on that 13th birthday so badly that he never spoke to her again. Now he’s a scruffy, downtown, independent-minded photographer (who will, of course, help her redeem the stodgy slickness of Poise), exemplifying the moral course from which Jenna has strayed, as she has so aggressively pursued cool-girlness.
You see the lessons she will learn. While it’s been described as a sort of distaff Big, Gary Winick’s follow-up to Tadpole slightly shifts the terms of Penny Marshall’s film. Jenna’s primary relationship, the unfulfilled romance with Matt, is saved, unlike Tom Hanks’ impossible adult relationship with Elizabeth Perkins. And Jenna’s successful challenges to the magazine business as usual (that is, corrupt, cutthroat practices) are inspired by her childlike enthusiasm for a time that, literally speaking, didn’t occur for her (namely, college).
The movie’s concept — prepackaged nostalgia for youthful, if unreal, guilelessness — is surely seductive. Here’s a girl who has missed everything that might have brought her from 13 to 30, including the maliciousness she has committed in order to become as successful as she ever wished. Rather than knowing of, much less bearing responsibility for, her personal and professional history, she is able to paste together nonexistent memories in order to remake herself in a present that in itself doesn’t really exist (the film reconstructs it, after all, as a 13-year-old’s crazy dream). It’s the perfect fantasy of executive success: all the perks, no guilt.
She’s estranged from her parents (including her wonderfully patient mother [Kathy Baker]) and has no notion of the other-women’s-husbands she’s bedded in order to attain her brilliant career. This lack of experience allows her to remain a safe point of identification, innocent by definition. To make her position clear, 13 Going on 30 offers up a recognizable villain, in Jenna’s supposedly best friend, Lucy (whose name used to be Tom-Tom, now played by [Judy Greer]). The obvious representative of how nasty fast-paced careerism can be, Lucy is two-faced with all stops out. The fact that she’s only emulating her more “successful” girlfriend, Jenna, leaves poor Jenna looking like she’s in Captain Kirk’s alternative universe, trying desperately to undo her bad self’s malevolence.
No doubt, the film’s formula tends to the tedious (Jenna must learn lessons, Matt must feel betrayed again, their romance must undergo twists and turns). But for all that, the girly stuff is all about Garner’s big smile and gangly grace. At a slumber party with her 13-year-old girl neighbors, 30-year-old Jenna shares her delirious first kiss with Matt (which takes place on a playground, no less). As the girls ooh and ahh and press for details, Jenna is wound-up with possibilities. Such moments are gallantly enchanting, even, on occasion, thrilling.