Whimsical fantasies that teach life lessons rarely make the grade, but “13 Going on 30,” despite a terrible title and a plot that’s little more than a gender-switching (and even less logical) variant on “Big,” manages to be a sprightly surprise. The story of a thirteen-year old high schooler who’s unhappy that she’s not accepted by the “cool” crowd and gets her wish to be all grown up doesn’t make much sense, but it boasts a star-making turn by Jennifer Garner and expert support from Mark Ruffalo and Andy Serkis, and director Gary Winick (“Tadpole”) has the flair to keep even the most implausible elements tolerable. There’s also a background score of familiar 1980s tunes that keep things humming.
As the plot kicks in, it’s 1987, and semi-geeky doormat Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) yearns to be part of the “Six Chicks” smart set led by smug princess Lucy Wyman, even though her adoring next-door neighbor Matt Flamhaff (Sean Marquette) encourages her to be herself (and prefer his company to theirs). Things come to a head at Jenna’s disastrous thirteenth birthday party, where she’s humiliated by the “cool” kids and in turn dumps Matty, but not before he’s given her his gift–which magically, through some “Wishing Dust,” grants her most fervent wish, to be thirty. Dorky Jenna wakes up in 2004 as Garner, a stunning professional woman with a posh Manhattan apartment, a handsome hockey-player boyfriend, and a killer job as an editor at her favorite magazine, “Poise” (where Lucy, played by Judy Greer, is her closest colleague). The problem is that inside, she’s still the thirteen-year old Jenna of 1987, lost in this fabulous new world. To get her bearings, Jenna seeks out Matt (now Ruffalo), an affable photographer, for support. But he hasn’t seen her since ’87 (and is about to be married himself), and assumes she’s gone off the deep end. Still, being an agreeable guy, he buries the hatchet and lends a hand, and before too long they rekindle their old friendship: Jenna even hires him to shoot the photos for a full-scale revamping of the magazine that its managing editor (Serkis) has ordered because of slumping sales and constant scooping by a rival rag. The final reels of the picture reveal both to us, and to the thirty-year old Jenna, the rather unattractive methods she’s used over the years to get where she is and how much better things would be had she made the proper choices. Of course, in a fantasy like this it’s always possible to turn back the clock and set things right, but happily the obligatory feel-good finale is handled swiftly.
This is pretty flimsy stuff, contrived even by “Big” standards (in which, of course, the calendar didn’t leap forward by seventeen years); and even though in this sort of material one ordinarily needs a substantial suspension of disbelief, at times this script by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa goes beyond even their earlier “What Women Want” in implausibility (certainly the idea that the adolescent remaking of “Poise” that the “young” Jenna fashions would have the remotest chance of succeeding is absurd). Moreover, if you take the picture too seriously, you can see it as sexist, implying that a woman’s happiness depends on her choice of a man rather her business acumen. What saves “13 Going on 30” from its flaws, quite simply, is the execution. Though Garner overdoes the Julia Roberts mannerisms at times, her ebullience carries the day, and she’s ably abetted by Ruffalo, whose rumpled charm dovetails nicely with her vivacity. And while Greer is just okay (in an admittedly thankless role), Serkis has a good deal of fun as Jenna’s extravagantly emotional boss. Kathy Baker has an especially nice turn as Jenna’s mom, playing her as a reasonable, helpful sort in both 1987 and 2004, and Marcia DeBonis contributes a scene-stealing bit as her frazzled secretary–she’s as memorable as Edie McClurg was in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Winick shows that he can handle this sort of lighthearted nonsense with aplomb, and he secures good support from his crew: the movie has a creamy, candy-colored look appropriate to the material.
And the musical choices add to the nostalgic fizz. Songs from the likes of The Go-Go’s, Belinda Carlisle, Madonna, Rick Springfield, Talking Heads and Whitney Houston pop up on the soundtrack, and the major feel-good production number has Jenna livening up a party-in-trouble by leading an ensemble recreation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. That certainly dates the shoot to a period preceding the rock star’s latest legal woes, and when the sequence begins, you might even suffer a momentary shock of disbelief. But it turns out to be a lot of fun, which is something you can say about the whole movie–as unlikely as that might seem.
“13 Going on 30” is a girl’s wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s engaging rather than trying, a chick flick that even their dates can enjoy.