Big (1988)

10 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If “Back to the Future” brought up the idea that teenagers don’t think their parents were ever young and that their parents never think they’re old, then “Big” brings up the idea that teenagers should embrace their youth and shouldn’t hurry to become old.

“Big” is a wonderful comedy-drama and it comes with a surprising story idea that has been done in so many other movies around the time this movie was released. It’s a body-swap movie—a movie in which one person turns into somebody else, and sometimes it’s vice versa. This string of movies started in October 1987, when “Like Father, Like Son,” a bad reimagining of the OK 1977 Disney comedy “Freaky Friday,” was released. Then, in early 1988, two other movies were released around the same idea—the terrific “Vice Versa” and the bland “18 Again!” One can imagine the pleasantly surprising success of “Big.” With a funny, intelligent screenplay and an excellent performance by Tom Hanks as a young boy’s mind inside an older man’s body, “Big” is a triumph—a most appealing comedy that’s amusing, insightful, and a lot of fun.

Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is your typical, average 13-year-old boy. He hangs out with his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton), hates doing household chores, and has a crush on the tall popular girl in school, but is too nervous to talk to her. He gets his chance to talk to her while in line for a carnival ride, but he’s embarrassed when he’s told he’s too short to ride the ride. While walking in misery, he comes across an arcade game—a strange fortune-telling machine that isn’t plugged in, but still seems to work, as it asks Josh to make a wish. Josh wishes to be “big” and gets a fortune saying his wish is granted.

The following morning, he’s surprised to realize that his wish has come true. He no longer looks like 13-year-old Josh anymore; he’s 30-year-old Josh (played by Tom Hanks), though he still has his 13-year-old mind. When his own mother doesn’t recognize him, Josh turns his buddy Billy for help. Billy believes that this strange man really is Josh and helps him find the same game to wish himself back to normal.

Josh goes to New York City to find the game anywhere he can, but has to wait six weeks for a list of all carnivals and arcades so he can track it down. This means he’ll have to live in the city, so he has to find a job and he gets one, working as a data processor for McMillan Toys. He meets the boss (Robert Loggia), who likes his energy and enthusiasm around the office, at FAO Schwartz, where he’s pleased to see how much Josh knows about toys and moves him up to Vice President of Product Development. Billy can’t believe Josh’s good fortune—they pay him to play with toys and report on them, to which Billy playfully replies, “Suckers!” I wouldn’t blame him; it’s a kid’s dream come true.

As Josh continues with his job, he meets a co-worker named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), the floozy who, as hinted, has slept with almost everyone at the company. She plans to do the same with Josh, but is genuinely attracted to his child-like innocence as he invites her over to his new apartment, that has what every kid would want in his own place, which include a free-Pepsi machine (by that, I mean the machine is rigged), a pinball machine, and a giant trampoline. Josh falls for Susan and Susan is surprised to feel the same way towards him.

That human-interest story is surprisingly well-handled. They lead to sweet, lighthearted moments in which we feel for the characters and realize what exactly was missing from the other body-swap movies released around this time. Credit for that must go to the writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (Steven Spielberg’s sister) for taking their time to develop the characters as well as the situations. There are a lot of great scenes in the movie that either lead to laughs or smiles. Examples—the scene in which Josh gives an idea for a toy in a board meeting; Josh’s response to Susan first saying she wants to spend the night with him (“OK…but I get to be on top!”); Josh and Susan jumping on that trampoline in Josh’s apartment, and more. There are also moments of convincing drama, such as Josh’s first night in the city and Josh calling his mother to hear her voice because he misses her.

Also, the movie has no real villains. I mean, sure, there’s a co-worker—Susan’s ex-boyfriend named Paul, played by John Heard—who wants to humiliate Josh for getting all the attention. But it isn’t pushed further; he’s just an office jerk. And that’s actually kind of refreshing. “Big” doesn’t need a villain. The only conflict that should be focused upon is developed in the final act. The final act is when Josh is too much in tune with his new body, new job, and new girlfriend, and then Billy comes along to remind him of who he really is and why he came to the city in the first place. This brings the question of whether or not Josh will make the decision to wish himself to be young again or stay the way he is, losing his teenage/young adult years.

Before “Big” was released, most people have labeled Tom Hanks as just OK in the early 1980s. Many critics thought he was bland in comedies like “Splash” and “The Man in One Red Shoe” (and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t see what they meant). But in “Big,” he gives a star-making performance. Tom Hanks is brilliant as a young boy trapped in an older man’s body. He behaves like a kid, talks like a kid, and has the innocence of a kid. Therefore, the audience is convinced that they’re watching a “big” kid. The way Hanks acted in this performance was very clever—the director Penny Marshall rehearsed many of Hanks’ scenes with the young actor David Moscow’s scenes, so that Hanks could observe how Moscow would act in those scenes and copy him. The result is Tom Hanks’ excellent performance.

The supporting cast members do nice jobs. In particular, Elizabeth Perkins is convincing as Susan, Jared Rushton is appealing as Billy, and Robert Loggia, with a twinkle in his eye, is wonderful as the boss who admires this strange man’s energy. In the best-looking scene in the movie, Josh and his boss play/dance to “Heart and Soul” together on a giant carpet piano in the middle of the toy store, as everyone watches. It’s a wonderful scene—good-looking, funny, and played wonderfully, while Hanks and Loggia perform without stunt doubles.

“Big” is a treasure of a movie—pleasant, enjoyable, funny, well-written and well-acted.

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