13 Going on 30 has a plot so old it probably came over on the Mayflower. This is one of those movies where an adolescent makes a wish to be grown up, then awakens the next morning to find the wish has come true. (Why it always has to take effect the next morning instead of right away has never made much sense to me.) This premise has been done in numerous other films such as Vice Versa, 18 Again, Like Father Like Son, two versions of Freaky Friday and, most memorably, Big . That’s a whole lotta body switching going on. The fact is that any old formula can work again so long as a little bit of freshness is injected into it. 13 Going on 30 almost succeeds but is ultimately a little too familiar to rise above the pack.
Jennifer Garner stars as Jenna Rink who, when we first meet her in 1987, is a 13-year old girl desperately trying to fit in with the clique of cool girls. She thinks her attempts are working, but really the cool girls are just using her. This becomes painfully clear when they pull a humiliating prank on Jenna that causes her to flip out on her equally awkward best friend Matt, who has always had unspoken feelings for her. A distraught Jenna makes a wish to be thirty, just as some “magic dust” Matt bought for her birthday falls on her head.
When she wakes up the next morning, Jenna is not only thirty but she’s also in 2004. (This is not just a body-switching movie, it’s also a time travel movie!) She works for a fashion magazine, dates a New York Ranger, and lives a trendy lifestyle. Of course, since she’s really 13 inside, not much of this makes sense to her. It’s never made clear how she could jump ahead in time 17 years but still retain only the knowledge she had in 1987, but I suppose logic is not really supposed to apply to movies like this one. Frightened, Jenna turns to the only person who might be able to help: Matt (Mark Ruffalo). The problem is that they haven’t spoken since that fateful day when she told him in anger to get lost. They begin hanging out and Matt finds his old feelings returning, despite the fact that he’s about to be married to another woman.
Is any of this sounding familiar? 13 Going on 30 has a lot of elements that have been done to death. There are plenty of scenes in which Jenna tries to figure out things that a 13-year old girl wouldn’t know about, or reacts to adult things in an immature way, or behaves inappropriately during important functions. Admittedly, some of the variations the movie comes up with are pretty amusing, including a very funny scene in which Jenna leads a crowd in doing Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance at a work-related party. I also liked a scene in which Jenna’s best friend Lucy (Judy Greer) goads her into trying to pick up a cute guy in a restaurant; a naïve Jenna ends up flirting with a very-willing teenage boy. For every scenario that works, though, I’d say there’s one that falls flat. The picture goes back and forth between seeming clever and seeming really predictable. By the third or fourth time that she becomes appalled at the prospect of seeing a naked man, for instance, the joke just starts to seem juvenile. There’s also a running joke in which Jenna’s childish business ideas repeatedly impress her boss (Andy Sirkis, who played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings) that seems especially labored.
Of course there is always a moral in these pictures, and the moral is usually the same. By the time the story is over, Jenna has learned not to take her youth for granted. She realizes also that it’s important for adults to never let go of their youthful side because…well, what am I telling you this for? If you’ve seen any of the other body-switching movies you already know what the moral is.
Despite a lot (and I mean a lot) of predictability – including the resolution of Matt’s engagement to the other woman - 13 Going on 30 has a few things that mitigate the damage, making this is a watchable movie if not quite a recommendable one. One thing it has is good performances. Jennifer Garner seems poised to become one of America’s new sweethearts, just as Reese Witherspoon was a few years ago with Sweet Home Alabama. Garner has an energy and a vitality that really bounce off a movie screen. Although she never captures the inner child goofiness that Tom Hanks mastered in Big, she does exude presence. It’s a quality you can’t fake. She’s well paired with the always reliable Mark Ruffalo, who brings the slightest trace of an edge to what could have been a stereotypical broken-hearted nerd role.
The other interesting thing the movie does is to make Jenna unlikable. When young Jenna inhabits her adult body, she discovers that her grownup self has done some pretty despicable things. She is appalled by her own duplicitous, dishonest nature. Naturally, these flaws are fixed with an injection of adolescent innocence. It’s something you can see coming a mile away, but at least the story doesn’t exactly sanctify the character.
I like those parts of the film, but they don’t compensate for the fact that 13 Going on 30 follows the body switching formula a little too closely. When a formula is done with freshness, your mind glosses over the fact that it is, in fact, a formula. In this case, I felt like I could see the wheels turning all the time. There was an almost constant feeling of having been there and done that. This is a harmless movie with some laughs and smiles, and I found it diverting to sit through. But this plot has been done much better before, so why settle for a merely adequate version of it?
( 1/2 out of four)
13 Going on 30 is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief drug references. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.
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