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That Moment In ‘Big’ (1988): Josh Confronts Susan

Josh Baskin has a lot going for him. Good home, best friend, loving parents. But he’s feeling a little stuck. Even in his video game, he gets frozen for a million years in a block of ice. But at the local carnival, he is this close to impressing the cute girl. He has the smile, the charm, the tickets . . . but what he doesn’t have is height. Told he is not big enough to ride the Super Loops he ends up embarrassed and heading off alone behind the arcade to nurse his wounded pride. It is here where he stumbles upon Zoltar Speaks, a coin-operated fortune telling machine that grants wishes. Naturally, he aims high and asks for a red Ferrari and a leggy model to go, er, no, wait, he doesn’t do that. He instead asks to be “big” despite literally eons of unequivocal evidence that this will be an anatomical certainty if he just waits like, a year or so. Zoltar spits out a card that says his wish is granted. The wind picks up, and Josh notices the darned machine isn’t even plugged in! We all know what’s next. Time for the magic.

Next morning, sure enough, Josh wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees himself as an adult. It’s great at first, but now he’s got the body of a 30-year-old man but the emotional development and experience of a pre-teen boy. Some might say there isn’t much difference, but for the story, it leads to a lot of fun and clever circumstances. He runs away, trusting only his best friend after his mother believes he kidnapped the real Josh. Now, while waiting to find another Zoltar to undo the wish, he gets a high-paying Vice-president’s job playing with the latest gadgets and toys, rents a massive studio apartment in New York City with 50-foot ceilings and a Jacuzzi, meets, hooks up, and gets jiggy with a super hottie he works with, and . . . whoa, whoa, hold on a darned minute. Seriously? He gets all that? Just by wishing to be big? We’re heading to the carnival.

Filled with lots of laughs, a star-making performance by Tom Hanks, and a highly satisfying story, this delightful fairytale hits a lot of the right notes (especially those played on a foot piano).

That Moment In Big

Scene Setup : Josh has spent a few weeks as an adult. The excitement has worn off and he’s realizing he simply isn’t prepared to take on the responsibilities of life in his thirties.  His girlfriend Susan has high hopes for a future, but she’s sensing something is off and when he arrives late for dinner after walking about, thinking, it’s time for some confession.

Why it Matters: The story makes no attempt to hide it’s fantasy lore. Zoltar Speaks sits just outside the boundaries of the carnival and there is clearly a sense of magic about the entire process.  Throughout the movie, we’ve seen a young boy playing grown-up, doing things adults do, but with little of the consequence. Everything has worked out for him, and in a few short weeks, he’s managed to have some very real, very mature experiences. In this scene, the film’s message, though hardly amBIGuous, is revealed. It’s been lingering in the corners of our minds, but suddenly, we recognize how significant our childhood is, even though we so desperately want to get older.

More: We recently covered a lot about Tom Hanks in our post That Moment In: Joe Versus the Volcano, so we won’t go on again about his rise to fame. This time, we’ll stick to this movie and his performance. There is a lot to like about Hanks here, as he carries this movie entirely. Perfectly cast as a man-child, he convinces us right from the start that there is a boy trapped inside a man. That’s why it is so much more powerful when we get to this moment. Hanks has a great talent for expressing emotion with very little action. We see the boy breaking and wanting rescue, but naturally, Susan believes he’s speaking metaphorically. 

Let’s watch:

Before gushing about the great things in this movie, of which there are aplenty, we really need to start with the obvious. (And yes, we know it’s a movie and a fantasy movie at that.) We’re perfectly fine with checking our brains at the door and having fun when we watch a . . . ya know what? Hold on. That’s like the exact opposite of what we do. We watch movies to be in someone else’s world. But that world has got to be grounded, it has to be sold. We don’t need explanations for everything, but it’s gotta convince us it can exist, it can happen, it is a reality in that world. That said, a few things about Big leave us scratching our heads. Like:

1) What happened to the father?

Josh’s parents are mostly absent from the story, but dear ol’ dad is practically a no-show. Apart from what basically amounts to a cameo in the beginning, he is entirely forgotten. Oh Daddy, Where Art thou?

Goodbye, movie career.

2) Speaking of parents, just what are they doing to find their son?

Sure, sure, about halfway through we get a glimpse of a milk carton with Josh’s face on the side. Other than that, there seems to be no effort whatsoever in rescuing Josh. At one point, older Josh calls home, where we have already seen police taking notes on a suspected kidnapping. The mother talks to older Josh and weeps when she believes the kidnapper has her son. A few days later, older Josh calls again, trying to find out what medicine he should take for an upset stomach. He pretends to be taking a “consumer survey” and wants to ask the mother about her medicine choices. She calmly answers the questions and then hangs up after Josh’s baby sister starts to cry. Maybe we’ve seen too many cop shows, but if the “kidnapper” has already called once, wouldn’t there be some recording or tracing going on? She hangs up after about 15 seconds, which is way too short. Did she just give up on her son? Shouldn’t Josh be feeling way worse after this conversation?

“Hello. Is this 1-800-MyParentsDon’tGiveACrap?”

3) What in the name of all things good and mighty is this? Seriously. This is a thing that happens. It’s the entire scene. 

“Can’t talk. Late for the 60s Motown backup singers revival.”

4) The guy doing the hiring at MacMillan Toys needs to be fired.

There are number of red flags flailing about like wind socks in a hurricane that should warn those in charge that this fellow is not only unqualified for his position, but possesses the cognitive awareness of a disposable cotton ball. His single most attributable skill seems to be a rather impressive demonstration of pen clicking. Well, that and a complete lack of understanding of the most basic fundamentals of job interviewing. With his office waiting room filled with professional looking well-educated and experienced candidates, this guy hires a painfully obvious impostor with nearly zero adult interactive skills wearing a wardrobe reject from the set of Revenge of The Nerds. Give that guy a raise!

“It says here . . . I should think about the food service industry.”

5) Has everyone lost their marbles?

Some adults are childish, sure. We pride ourselves on our own rampant silliness. But there’s childish behavior and then there is serious mental disfunction that require immediate medical attention. Josh, as an adult, comes in contact with dozens of apparently sane people who seem to have no questions about a “man” who can’t professionally dress himself, has obvious intellectual development issues, and literally acts like a 12-year-old boy . . . in every single situation.  This is most especially true of Susan, who actually visits his apartment, or, in what a normal adult visiting his house would think, a nightmare den of pedophiliac horrors. “9-1-1” should be what we hear her screaming as she bolts down the stairs.

Nope. No warning signs here.

6) What about the life adult Josh leaves behind?

Yes, sometimes it would be great to just say, “Well, I want to go home now and be 13 again. Honey, drop me off where I grew up.” But Josh actually does it . . . leaving behind a smiling Susan in her wicked cool Subaru XT6. Fade to black. Happy ending. Roll credits.

Next day however, the adult Josh is now a missing man, and once his picture circulates, he gets identified as the kidnapper of little Josh. Susan is arrested for not only her possible involvement in his disappearance, but was also seen dropping off the young Josh outside his house, in the middle of afternoon! Meanwhile, little Josh becomes an intolerable jackhole, having spent six weeks as an incredibly successful executive earning BIG money, renting an apartment BIGger than his own family’s house and having sexual bragging rights no kid in the 7th grade could possible compete with. His childhood obliterated, he longs to be an adult again and loses all his friends, alienates his parent’s and winds up wandering the streets in search of the Zoltar Speaks machine that, by all accounts, in the wrong hands, has the same catastrophic combination as Biff, a sports almanac, and a DeLorean that goes 88 mile per hour.

“His Underoos should have really tipped me off.”

Okay, so those are a few that spring to mind, but despite these nagging issues, one must overlook them and embrace the fairy tale for what it is, and what our chosen That Moment In reveals. Sometimes, we want to go back. As fulfilling as our adult lives can be, for many, youth is a time most fondly remembered, even if we romanticize those memories and make them larger than they really were. Josh feels this, and wants to go home.

Let’s look a little closer at the scene again. We have to really admire Hanks. It can’t be easy to emulate a child so convincingly and yet be taken seriously on screen. Most actors would have overdone this, turning BIG Josh into a caricature. An obvious example is the late, great, Robin Williams as Jack in the movie of the same name. While not a fantasy, Jack is a boy with a generative disease that causes him to age at an exaggerated rate. The movie doesn’t work because we are not convinced Williams is a child, merely a man (really Robin) acting like a child. Hanks worked closely with the actor who played young Josh, (David Moscow), studying his mannerisms carefully. Moscow would complete all the “older” Josh scenes as himself, and then Hanks would use them as templates for his own performance. You really sense a boy awkwardly trapped in a body he’s not familiar with yet. And the director, Penny Marshall, capitalizes on this well, often subtly. Look closely at the movements Hanks makes getting across the street. An effective reminder to the audience that even though we see Josh as a man, he is still a boy inside.

“Run, Forrest! Run!”

This is why when Josh confesses that he’s not who she thinks he is, it feels so real. We’d been laughing along with his adventures, feeling a strong connection to his journey, and now, we realize it could never be. Josh is not emotionally developed to explain himself well to Susan, but the words he uses are familiar to her. He is speaking in metaphors. Or so she thinks. He starts by saying that he wanted to talk before but was worried she wouldn’t like him anymore. Watch his fingers fidgeting. He tries to tell her of his life before her, and at last just says he wants to go home. His face is powerfully emotive, and it’s heartbreaking for us because we know who he really is. Of course Susan doesn’t, and it sounds as if he is confessing something entirely different. What’s interesting here is that Josh, while desperate to make her understand, talks without any make-believe. He is describing exactly what has happened, but to her it sounds like he’s fronting something else, yet it is her that eventually becomes the most childlike. She huffs, she paces and can’t keep still. Finally, she runs away.

Big is a joy to watch mostly because it allows us to go back in time too. Hanks is more than the actor, he is the conduit for which we travel ourselves. He so completely becomes the boy, we lose ourselves in his story. It’s difficult to watch him in his first night away from home in a seedy hotel room. Hanks taps into a lot of our fears in this scene, sitting alone, watching the door, hoping it can hold whatever monsters lie beyond.

Okay, no jokes. This was scary for us too.
Damnit, we promised ourselves we wouldn’t cry this time.

There are some really fine supporting performances. We’ve mentioned Susan, played by Elizabeth Perkins. She is the go-getter at the company and there is change in her as well that is not especially obvious. When we meet her, she is uptight, her hair pulled back, her suit form-fitting and angular. She is all business and has apparently climbed there by any means. By the end, her hair is down, soft and on her shoulders, her clothes are flowing and she is letting go of the power and sexual shenanigans of the office.

Thanks BIG Josh.

Susan’s former lover, and another executive at the office, is played by John Heard from Home Alone fame. He is also very funny and gets a few of the best laughs. Our favorite is this office strategy meeting about a new robot toy.

Then there is the great Robert Loggia playing the CEO and creator of MacMillan toys. We see that he too is probably a BIG kid at heart and he shares some effective scenes that show how much more he should have been featured. Everyone of course knows him from the classic foot piano scene, which he and Hanks did on their own.

Even the pianos are BIG.
But  for us, his best scene comes later when we see inside his office, filled with old toys and he’s struggling to work on a report. He is a man of actions, of dreams and ideas, not crunching numbers. He revels in the physical demonstration of an old memory and rightfully explains that trying to keep a 13-year-old boy a 13-year-old boy forever is a mistake. You can’t stop a kid from growing up. He says “All a thirteen year old boy wants is a thirteen year old girl.” We move on. We find new interests. We become adults. It is the entire meaning of the movie.

It’s fun to be critical of a great film. While we make fun of some oddities, we are, in our hearts, true fans of this classic Penny Marshall film. There have been too many body-switching films to even consider, and there is also a reason why they mostly fail. They spend too much time on the jokes of the premise rather than on the consequences of the situation. Big takes the high road and focuses on the child and not the bumbling set-ups to one-liners or sight-gags. When it does go for laughs, the humor is tied to an emotion the adults in the audience can connect with, such as caviar, baby corn, tuxedoes and, “Okay, but I get to be on top.” It’s charming and touching and makes us long for not just youth, but innocence.


Penny Marshall


Gary Ross, Anne Spielberg


Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia

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