When working with a script that is slight and a premise that is high concept, it is vitally important that the star of the film be able to carry the weight of whats missing on her pretty shoulders in such a way that shortcomings can be overlooked. And so it is fortunate that 13 GOING ON 30 has Jennifer Garner, who has the requisite audience appeal and acting chops.
The story is a retread of BIG, but with a few feminine twists. Our wannabe grown up this time is Jenna, the device is some wishing dust, and the results are time travel to the future rather than a growth spurt. The film opens on Jennas thirteenth birthday, a day fraught with the results of a disastrous yearbook picture, the sorts of life-scarring insults by the coolest girls in school that only another adolescent can inflict, and a present from her best friend, Matt, the geeky photo nerd next door, that is a tear-jerking testament to his abiding affection. After a particularly mortifying moment at the hands of the cool girls, Jenna wishes she were thirty, as in the flirty thirty promised by her favorite fashion magazine and, voila, she wakes up in a strange bed (hers) in a chic apartment (hers), otherwise populated by a hunky naked guy (also hers). She doesnt remember anything between the moment she made the wish and waking up to her strange new world. Confused, scared, and wearing only the slip she woke up in and a stylish coat, she bolts from her apartment to discover that she has a glittering life as the editor of that fashion magazine. Oddly enough, Matt is no part of it and when she tracks him down and starts paying attention to the details of how she got where she is, the glitter is a little less shiny.
Garner here has made a small but significant in-road into movie career. She has the bubbly emotional overdrive of a thirteen-year-old trapped in an adult body without the deadly preciousness that could completely sink the film. Shes also got the gawky body language of someone whos been hit with puberty in an instant and isnt quite sure what to make of the physiological results. Garner, who has a knack for physical comedy, doesnt exaggerate the disconnect between mind and body, instead playing it low key for the most part, doing more with the obvious sequence where Jenna discovers the developments in her mammary area than the scriptwriters were able to get on paper with mere dialogue. Ditto a joke about not knowing what a cell phone is. Shes also got great chemistry with the adorably shaggy Mark Ruffalo as the un-geeky grown-up Matt who is startled to see the girl who blew him off so many years ago, but is still sweet enough to want to take her back. Sort of. There is something wonderfully childlike and innocent to them both that is a refreshing and irresistible change of pace.
13 GOING ON 30 is a film with problems. The story is pat with no surprises unless not having any counts. The audience must believe that a group of hip 30-something New Yorkers would not only remember every choreographed moment of Michael Jacksons Thriller video, but also be able to reproduce it in perfect synchronization a the drop of a phonograph needle. There is also a certain suspension of disbelief entailed in getting past the idea that a sharky fashion magazine editor would leave incriminating evidence in an unlocked desk drawer, but never mind. Its a harmless bit of fluff that will do much to consolidate Ms Garners big screen status even while its distinctly not blazing any new cinematic trails.