For some reason, age-changing was a big thing in late 1980s movies. In cases like 18 Again! and Like Father Like Son, an older person switched places with a younger person. But in the case of Penny Marshall’s Big, there is no such exchange of experiences and a kid becomes an adult thanks to some magical intervention.
Featuring a screenplay by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, Big seems to ease out some of the decade’s anxieties. There is a steady suspicion of corporate culture and a loving charge against taking things too seriously. Everything is dipped in soft confection, though, so none of the high-minded concepts are taken too far.
12-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) lives the typical life. He’s buddies with Billy (Jared Rushton) and he wants to get the girl (Kimberlee M. Davis). One day, he wants to impress her at the fair but he’s too short for the ride. Frustrated, Josh locates a fortune teller machine and wishes to be big. He discovers that the machine is unplugged and receives a card that says his wish has been granted.
The next morning, Josh is a 30-year-old man (Tom Hanks) – give or take. He tries to locate the machine, but to no avail. Having to hide from his family, Josh reveals himself to Billy and they go to New York. Josh hides out and eventually gets a job at a toy company, where the boss (Robert Loggia) takes an interest and an executive named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) takes a greater interest.
Theoretically, Big traffics in some rather compelling stuff. Josh’s first night in New York City is horrifying and Hanks plays it beautifully, cowering under the filthy sheets and attempting to shut out the gunfire. He calls for his mother (Mercedes Ruehl), the woman he accidentally terrorized a few hours earlier in a hilarious scene of miscommunication.
Because Big is a fantasy, things tend to go well even when they shouldn’t. It’s hard to argue that Josh faces that much adversity as a bigger version of himself. He lands a job with ease and even gets the girl, but the Ross and Spielberg screenplay keeps things family-friendly to a fault. The sex issue is brushed by with a warm hint, while Josh’s rise up the corporate ladder is similarly loaded but similarly timid.
That’s not to say that this isn’t an entertaining motion picture, of course. Hanks is uncannily flawless in the role, bringing both a classical feel and a defiant newness. He embodies every ounce of the 12-year-old Josh, from the way he sits on the office chair to the way he almost always refuses to pay attention when an adult is speaking.
Big tries to take this skittering approach to his emotional relationship with Susan, but it plays with too many conveniences. She becomes a sort of rescue mission for the kid in a man’s body, which draws up some unique questions that go without suitable answers. Perkins’ character is damaged goods; she’s effectively the office whore. What a depressing wonder that she finds solace with a man-child.
Marshall’s movie is at its best when it skirts the darkness, like when it allows Hanks and Loggia to frolic on Remo Saraceni Walking Piano at FAO Schwartz. The scene is framed beautifully by cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld and presented with no extra nonsense. It suggests the immutability of remaining young at heart and the allure of play, all in the span of “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks.”
The supporting cast does the job, with Rushton sealing scenes as the scruffy Billy and Perkins capable of turning her icy executive into a beam of sunshine with an absolutely beautiful smile. Heard gets to be the heavy and his Paul Davenport tackles Josh in a game of racquetball that blurs the lines between childhood games and masculine catharsis.
Big isn’t a great movie, but it is a very good one. It deals in complex elements with breeze, exploring the nature of being young and the nature of growing older without hammering nails. Hanks’ performance is tremendous, both in detail and in wonder, and it’s hard to knock any picture that features a character so excited about a paycheque that he asks for it as three dimes, a hundred-dollar bill and 87 ones.