Garner frolics in `13'


April 23, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC


** 1/2

The best thing about 13 Going on 30 is that an ever-game Jennifer Garner is cheerfully convincing as a 13-year-old in a 30-year-old body. The worst thing is the feeling we've seen this movie before, done better.

The film opens in 1987, where 13-year-old Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) is your standard-issue teen, not terribly pretty, popular or happy. She can't wait to become older, when she'll have a figure, a boyfriend, a career and maybe even some self-esteem (she doesn't know that's what she really craves, but she does). After a disastrous birthday party, she falls crying on the floor and begs to be 30.

Fortunately, some handy magic dust does what it was designed to do, and gawky young Jenna becomes lithe, curvaceous Jenna (Garner). Her mind is still 13 - time travel like this doesn't fill in all the holes - but everything else about her is 30.

Turns out Jenna's crammed a lot into the past 17 years. She's a successful magazine editor, has a studly boyfriend (a New York Ranger, at that) and her best friend is former rival and class it girl, Lucy (Judy Greer). She also is a tyrant at work, never sees her parents and is generally not a nice person (a fate that seems to befall all career women, according to Hollywood).

Here's the twist: This new Jenna, this 13-turned-30 Jenna, isn't any of that bad stuff. She's still the bubbly, optimistic, maybe a little naive girl with her whole life ahead of her. And the more she finds out about the life she's carved out for herself during the past 17 years, the less she likes it.

Big, in which director Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks teamed for the definitive film study of young minds playing adult games, looms over this new film like a dominating parent. In both, the adult child is called on to rescue a stodgy, out-of-touch company from the dearth of joy that is threatening it with bankruptcy. In Big, it was a toy company; in 13 Going on 30, it's a lifestyle magazine.

In Big, you could believe what Hanks' character was selling; who better, after all, to provide new energy for a toy company than a member of its target audience. But the product Garner's Jenna comes up with seems decidedly unappealing for anyone who isn't under 18 or fatally nostalgic. The movie's message, that it's as important to be true to yourself at 30 as it is at 13, is welcome, but simplistic.

Director Gary Winick doesn't do much to sell the movie's conceit; outside of Garner's performance, there's very little in the way of spark (although Mark Ruffalo, as the grown-up version of the pudgy teen who had a crush on young Jenna, has some nice scenes). There's also the odd decision to use Michael Jackson's Thriller as a symbol of all that was fab and joyous about the early mid-'80s; given events of the past few months, perhaps less-encumbered music could have been found.

Garner, abandoning the gravitas that has made her such a success on TV's Alias, makes her 30-year-old seem 13 in all the best ways. Her performance is guileless, giddy and not in the least self-conscious, a joy to experience. It doesn't do much to make 13 Going on 30 original or profound, but it does make it enjoyable.

13 Going on 30

Starring Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo

Directed by Gary Winick

Released by Columbia Pictures

Rated PG-13 (some sexual content and brief drug references)

Time 98 minutes

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