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MMYIF: Big

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Big
Directed by: Penny Marshall
Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia
Released: June 3, 1988

After wishing to be made big, a teenage boy wakes the next morning to find himself mysteriously in the body of an adult.

What I Thought Then

Honestly, at age 10 or so, this felt like a kid empowerment fantasy with some boring relationship bits at the end.

What I Think Now

I think what amuses me most about the premise is that it's basically just another Freaky Friday remake, but with the less interesting half cut out. And man, does this film play differently now that I'm middle-aged. It doesn't even feel like the same movie. It's uncanny. As a kid, I was 100% on board with Josh Baskins (Tom Hanks) and his life choices and I laughed uproariously at the adults around him who didn't understand why he was acting the way he was. Now that I'm grown, I felt a little embarrassed for him. As a kid, I couldn't understand why his mom freaked out when a strange grown man showed up in her house and wouldn't just hear him out. As an adult... hoo boy, do I get it.

So let's talk about what works. Right up front there is Hanks' performance. At no point do you ever doubt that he's really an adolescent in an adult's body. He attacks the role with physicality and a child-like fervor that could easily have been cloying coming from a less charismatic actor. He sells it so well that when you get to the famous keyboard scene, you can't help but grin at how charmingly goofy he is. And just as important is Penny Marshall's direction. Marshall tends to aim right at the old heart-strings with her storytelling, and a lot of the time I find this overly saccharine (looking at you, A League of Their Own), but it works well here. The opening montage of Josh and his best friend Billy is a depiction of young male friendship that's so heartfelt and honest that it could only have been directed by a woman.

There are some delightful little nuances that Marshall brings out as well. Like when Josh encounters his mom after getting embiggened. She's defensive, giving him her purse and begging him to leave, but when she gets the idea that he might have done something with her child, she pulls out a kitchen knife and chases him. Or when Josh tries to tell his girlfriend Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) that he's really a child in a man's body, she thinks it's a metaphor about being afraid of commitment. I also like the shape of the overall story. It plays out like a metaphor for that awkward transition from childhood to adulthood. In the beginning, Josh wants to be big to impress a girl, and when he gets his wish, he's still very childlike in his demeanor. But when he gets into a relationship with (read: sleeps with) someone for the first time, that's when he actually matures. That's when he starts dressing like an adult and being concerned with things that adults are concerned with. And again, the nuances. When Josh wishes to be a kid again (I love that you never hear his exact phrasing, you just see him there with the Zoltar machine), he tells Susan that he has a millions reasons to go back home and only one reason to stay, and that's her. Any other movie would have him pursue the girl, but this one has him choose to go back home and finish growing up. That felt pretty bold to me.

All of that said, there are a few places where this movie falls short, and most of them involve its treatment of Perkins as an accessory rather than a character. When we meet her, we know she's important because Josh sees her bra. Her character arc is basically that she's sleeping her way up the food chain, but when she gets to Josh, she really falls for him. And I'm sorry, but that's just such a tired trope, a thin veneer over the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold story arc, which is itself a tired trope. She's won over by Josh's joie de vivre, but then she's the one who turns him into a man. Presumably she starts picking out his clothes for him, and then she even gives him a ride home so he can go back to his mother at the end. (Thankfully, their goodbye is punctuated by a kiss on the forehead.) Her entire presence is there as a foil for Josh to grow against and it's tiresome. My other gripe is that Marshall is a little too quick to sacrifice verisimilitude for heart. Normally, I will always say to err on the side of heart, but it goes a bit far here. How is Josh able to get a job with no official documentation, no ID, no way to fill out a W-2, and using his own name that's attached to an active missing persons case? How is he able to write a letter to his mom without the police tracing it back to him? How is he supposed to just magically get back into his old life after being gone for two months?

Recommendation?

I'll give this a soft recommendation. Some of it doesn't work, but the parts that do work really well. Honestly, I think this one would be ripe for a remake.

Tune in next week for hard-boiled detective story about a rabbit...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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