Movies keep on making what's older young again

Happy formula plays out from `Big' to `Going on 30'

April 22, 2004|By Deborah Hornblow | Deborah Hornblow,HARTFORD COURANT

Ask the average 13-year-old what he or she wants for a birthday present and the answer is: "to be older."

Ask the average middle-ager what he or she wants and the answer is: "to be younger."

This all-too-familiar aspect of human existence is at the core of a number of film comedies: from Penny Marshall's 1988 Big, the recent hit Freaky Friday and, opening tomorrow, 13 Going on 30.

Each movie derives most of its comedy from the same idea: that it is possible, through the miracles of magic and celluloid, to instantly change the age of the principal character or characters. Kids become adults and adults go back to being kids, all in the blink of a scene change.

The conventions of these crowd-pleasing comedies follow a formula that can be played out in multiple variations, but the basic outline remains the same.

Each of the aforementioned films begins with a montage of scenes designed to show audiences what a drag it is to be a kid or, in the case of Freaky Friday, an over-stressed grown-up. What happens next is what makes each of these films a comic fantasy. An agent of wish fulfillment (or, in the case of Freaky Friday, need fulfillment) strikes. In a moment that actualizes a timeless human fantasy, wishes are granted or perspectives are altered. Kids age and adults go retrograde.

The agents of alteration vary from movie to movie but all involve some degree of strange magic. In Big, the 13-year-old Josh has his wish granted at a fairground where a phone booth-size glass box welcomes anyone with a quarter to make a wish. Josh slides in his quarter and although the electricity-powered glass box is unplugged, the booth coughs out a card that reads, "Your wish is granted." The next day, voila, Josh is what he wished for, big.

In 13 Going on 30, a frustrated 13-year-old Jenna Rink is given some magic dust along with her other birthday presents. When her fizzled birthday party finds her sulking in a basement closet, she wishes to be older as the dust settles over her bowed head. Next day, young Jenna (Christa Allen) has been changed into the fashionable 30-year-old Jenna (Jennifer Garner).

In Freaky Friday, the age change occurs at the hands of a Chinese restaurateur who observes Tess Coleman (Jamie Lee Curtis) arguing with her daughter, Anna (Lindsay Lohan). The restaurateur decides to help the Coleman women sort things out. The next morning, daughter is mother and mother is daughter.

For all of the age-change protagonists, there is always a moment when they long to return to their former selves. Outside of the movies, no child or adult gets to live the fantasy of becoming younger or older. We depend on Hollywood to show us what we already know.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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