Rom-Com Review: "13 Going on 30"

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This body-switch comedy stars Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo. In 1987 a 13-year-old girl named Jenna wishes to be grown up and is transformed into a woman. The adult Jenna (Garner) now finds herself in the year 2004 as a 30-year-old magazine editor with the brain of a teenager. As she tries to find out what happened during the intervening 17 years, Jenna gets reacquainted with childhood friend Matt, now also grown up and played by Ruffalo.
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Rating: PG-14
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: April 23, 2004
Directed by: Gary Winick
Genre: Comedy / Fantasy / Romance

Suspended between the playful frivolities of childhood and the burgeoning promise of adulthood, what confused teenager hasn't wished to skip over the terrifying and tiresome high school years and jump directly to maturity? Jennifer Garner lives out this hopeful fantasy in "13 Going On 30." As is often the case, the difficulties between the disconnect of reality and expectation lead her character to a destination she never imagined.

"13 Going On 30" relies on a familiar plot device turned on its head. Over the years, numerous films have used the traditional youth-restored or second-chance trope. Some films, such as "17 Again," simply transform the protagonists into a younger version of themselves. Others, like "Freaky Friday," utilize the switched-body routine. "13 Going On 30" reverses this metamorphosis and instead leaps Jennifer Garner's character into early adulthood. The premise may share some DNA with Tom Hank's 80's film "Big," but Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa's script treads new ground. Instead of exploring the consequences of a child thrown into the adult world of their present day, this film examines the idea of what a 13-year-old girl might think if she could glimpse into her future.

The movie opens with a young girl preparing for her pivotal 13th birthday party. Christa B. Allen plays the young version of Jennifer Garner's character, Jenna. For two reasons, this is an excellent bit of casting. First, their resemblance is sufficient to easily imagine some familial connection between the two actresses. Second, Allen has the ability to succinctly capture the gawky fluster of a anxious teen. The second person introduced is Jenna's confidant and next door neighbor Matt, played by Sean Marquette. To the audience, Matt almost visibly vibrates with unrequited love for Jenna, but her attention and affection are drawn elsewhere. Concerned with another boy's attendance, Jenna barely acknowledges Matt's gift, a custom-built doll house representing all of her future ambitions. In her haste to move Matt along, Jenna misses an important additional component to the present, a bag of purportedly magic dust.

The party commences with the usual birthday fare. Punch is served, and cake is cut. Removed from parental oversight, the gathering quickly mutates into the teenage practice of testing their new found romantic awareness. The kids play the infamous game "Seven Minutes in Heaven." Eager to prove herself but uncertain of the way forward, Jenna fumbles through the whole endeavor and ends up humiliated. Jenna saddles Matt with the majority of the blame. Sulking in the basement, she inadvertently spills the magic dust. The shimmering powder combines with her tearful pleas to form the catalyst of the film. Upon waking the next day, Jenna realizes she has been transported to her 30th birthday.

Jenna's new world is the glamorous, career-driven life she had imagined as a child. To her chagrin, her boyfriend is a handsome athlete with a penchant for nudity. The vagaries of modern adult cohabitation are difficult to comprehend for a girl physically mature but mentally not quite even adolescent.

Jenna's second discovery is that the dominating queen bee of her middle school life, Lucy, has become her dearest friend. Lucy is adeptly played by the versatile actress Judy Greer. Greer has long been a familiar face in the film industry. Greer's comedic timing is excellent as the snarky but secretly self-conscious adult Lucy. Together, Lucy and Jenna hold dream occupations for many teenage girls, as they both work for a high-end fashion magazine. Jenna finds adulthood shocking but incredible. Jenna is troubled by one notable absence, though. Her former best friend Matt has vanished from her life.

Played by Mark Ruffalo, adult Matt is perplexed by Jenna unexpectedly seeking him out. Ruffalo portrays Matt with a grounded consistency that makes him the most sympathetic character in the film. Insistent that the pair reignite their friendship, Jenna sets the stage for the film's satisfying climax.

One other interesting casting note should be included. Watch for Jenna's boss, played by Andy Serkis. Serkis has played several significant CGI characters. The metropolitan editor he portrays here is far removed from his work as Gollum in "Lord of the Rings."

Garner and Ruffalo really deserve the lion's share for this films success. The two actors work diametrically opposed character arcs with an astonishing synergy. Ruffalo is the melancholy, practical and pragmatic foil to Garner's pitch-perfect portrayal of a teenage girl in a woman's body. Credit also needs to be given to director Gary Winick. It never seems like he's wrenching the narrative or dragging the audience from plot point to plot point. The story unfolds with an organic ease. Winick proves a film can work without constant reminders of the auteur behind it.