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REVIEW: When considering the premise for 13 Going On 30, much like any other body-switching themed film, one really only has one choice: take it at face value and simply go along for the ride, otherwise it becomes an exercise in frustration. Predominantly, these types of movies are always lightweight, focusing on lightweight issues with lightweight outcomes with a tacked on lightweight morality lesson for the viewer to think superficially about. 13 Going On 30 is no different, and it makes little effort to be anything but that. It is intended to push all the proper buttons and strives only to do so, abandoning logic as it merrily plods along, hoping we are distracted by the endlessly chirpy and smiling Jennifer Garner who parades throughout this film like a stop-motion puppet wearing the appropriate mask for each scene.
It begins with little Jenna (Christa B. Allen) celebrating her 13th birthday by inviting the Six Girls, a group of wildly stereotypical “mean girls” who strut about the hallways in a V-shaped pattern like a flock of geese while the lessors nearly genuflect as they pass. Jenna naturally wants to be one of them, but is far too adorable and naive. Plus her best friend is Matty (Sean Marquette), a pudgy boy who lives next door clearly smitten by Jenna, even though she is distracted by the shiny Chris Grandy (Alex Black) who is like a California Ken doll but has no interest in the innocent Jenna. The nasty kids are using her to write their reports and trick her into hiding her own closet with a blindfold in anticipation of a kissy Chris so they steal away with her work and send in Matty instead. Now comes the magic. With some store bought Wish Dust used at the party, a real wish is granted and Jenna wakes up as a 30-year-old woman. Surprise.
It turns out that in this alternate life, she did one thing different at the party that she didn’t do in the version we witnessed and it’s made all the difference. She is wealthy, working as an editor for a fashion magazine (because of course) and Lucy (Judy Greer), once the leader of the Six Girls, is now her colleague and friend. She’s also living in a luxury New York apartment, is dating a famous professional hockey player, and gets around in a limousine. But she is still just a little girl inside, even though her body is anything but. This makes for lots of set-ups for her to be appalled by her boyfriend’s “thingy” and his attempts for even a kiss. She adores her new bosom, and the lavish walk-in closet with racks upon racks of high-end clothes in which said bosom can be displayed. Distressed by her sudden situation, she seeks out her best friend, Matty (played as an adult by Mark Ruffalo), who conveniently lives nearby and much to her surprise isn’t all that happy to see her. However will she make things right?
The real problem with 13 Going On 30 isn’t the cast or setting or even the simple storyline. It’s the utter lack of charm and its unwavering commitment to remaining true to the tried and true path, offering not one single challenge for the characters or the viewer. We learn that Jenna as an adult is a bad person, has lost contact with her parents, and is secretly trying to give a competitive fashion magazine an edge over her own in a scheme to get a cushy job with them instead. This is glossed over so superficially it might as well not be even mentioned as the resolve has nothing to with any real kind of redemption. But what’s really hard to accept in how willing people are to keep acting like nothing is out of sorts while a woman who up to this point was a successful business woman, at least in their world, is now acting like a thirteen year old who doesn’t seem to know their names, can’t understand mobile phones, and appears to know nothing about what adults do when they are alone and involved.
Directed by Gary Winick, 13 Going On 30 is really critic-proof, as those interested in this kind of fantasy aren’t going to care about the procession of tropes doled out like sugar treats, from people having conveniently-timed conversations at exactly the right time for others to hear, others showing up at the right spot precisely on cue, and characters shifting from good to nefariously bad simply because the script requires it. They aren’t going to care that at a gala event with a crowd of party-goers, Jenna spontaneously breaks into the finale of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, where everyone one-by-one joins in, performing the 22-year-old (at the time of the story) dance sequence with a choreography that would take weeks to learn. They aren’t going to care that when Jenna presents a change to the magazine with an new idea (that is so utterly awful), everyone in the room stands up and cheers, with some even crying, even though it’s the kind of thing that in real life would end up with an office-clearing dismissal but in this world gets the entire company turned around and has the editor-in-chief even confessing he’s gay. This is empty calories and is meant to pass a few hours by as blissfully bland as possible. On that level, it succeeds but doesn’t make it good.
Scene Setup: Jenna has woken up in New York City as a 30-year-old woman in a slinky pink negligee, perplexed as one would and should be. As time goes by and she is led about her life, learning who the real Jenna is, she becomes increasingly more confused about what went wrong in this timeline. For her, she literally went from 13 to 30 and has no idea about the years in-between. She has reconnected with Matt, who, after a few quirky smiles from his old friend, is willing to start over. The issue is, he’s engaged, which should come as absolutely no surprise, or that the fiancee has schemes to pack them up and move to Chicago and throw off his own plans for the future. But the real problem for Jenna is that no one likes her. She has become a self-centered workaholic that seems to have abandoned everything that defined who she was a child. It gets to be too much, and so she gets on a train and heads back to the house where she grew up in hopes that maybe this terrible spell can be broken.
That Moment (Timestamp 00:57.03): Her parents are away on vacation, so she enters the home and immediately heads for the closet where her dilemma began, sitting on the floor rocking back and forth just as he had done before. She hasn’t learned from the experience yet, so of course, she’s unable to return, so she sits crying in sorrow. It’s at this moment that her mother and father arrive, fresh from their journey and hear their daughter in the basement closet and rush to tend to her, embracing her as she jumps into their arms.
From there she spends the night and in the morning, sits for breakfast with her mother (Kathy Baker). Jenna poses the question if you could go back in time, is there a mistake you would fix? She of course tells her daughter that there is nothing in her life she would like to do-over. She regrets none of the mistakes she has made because if she hadn’t made them then she wouldn’t have learned how to make things right, a sentiment that seems to reach the young woman and inspires her to face the problems she has in this new scary world.
While the film skirts any real psychological conceits that the story would naturally invoke, such as how can a woman with an education and experience of a 13-year-old remotely be possible of contending with and navigating through the fast-paced world of a business executive, let alone one living in a time seventeen years in the future from where they started, we as the viewer must play along if we’re going to stay on the message. That 13-year-old is drowning in the high waters of her new sudden life and it feels right that she would run to find shelter in the home that only a few days ago where she was living as a young girl. The chaos would naturally be too much, and it makes sense that the nest is where she would want to hide.
While Baker and Phil Reeves, as Jenna’s father, are in blink and you’ll miss them roles, at least Baker has one small moment to set the protagonist back on track. The kitchen scene is actually bittersweet, and it’s really the only time that Garner truly captures the look and feel of a young adolescent in an impossible situation.
That said, and the moment over, the obvious question is why doesn’t Jenna confide in her mother what’s really happened? If there is one person who might take the time to consider the possibility and listen, it would be her mother. While the filmmakers surely took a pledge to each other to avoid giving their story and chance for originality and seek a fresh perspective, it’s a shame that something more deep couldn’t have been aded to this moment where the mother listens to her daughter tell her how she’s woken up this way. The conversation would be deeply moving and could have made this entire sequence far more impactful as well as giving the “magic” of the premise some consequence. But alas, this tale is not intended for anything more than escapism, but it’s disappointing that such a great word as that has been reduced to this.