Despite resemblances to many, many movies that have come before, 13 Going On 30 is the kind of flawed but effervescent romantic comedy that soars on the chemistry of its central duo, Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo (who are sublimely dorky together).
In a suburban house on her 13th birthday in 1987, little Jenna Rink dreams of a life in New York, culled from the pages of her favorite magazine, a post-teen rag called Poise. Someday, she hopes, she'll be like one of the slick's headlines: "Thirty, and Flirty and Thriving." A little bit of wishing dust, a bump on the head, and she wakes up in modern-day Manhattan, an editor of the very same Poise. And it's just like high school, except with car service.
Garner plays the grown-up Jenna with a 13-year-old's gangly, adolescent mayhem in her Alias-toned body. Jenna acts out like a confused but eager puppy for whom the world is made up of only things to chase. But her co-workers think she's mad: it turns out the grown-up Jenna is a cruel, shallow, selfish person, nothing like the eager one now inhabiting her body. She meets up again with her best male friend, Matt Flamhaff, a geeky kid who's grown up to be Mark Ruffalo. He remembers her meanness, even if Jenna doesn't.
The weird premise has dark undercurrents, but what matters mostly is marshaling of dimples and the charm of the performances, including the invaluable Judy Greer as Garner's cynical best friend and co-worker and Andy Serkis (yes, Gollum) as their editor. Get past that prevailing critical canard, the "it's not groundbreaking" insistence on novelty, and this movie is a delight.
Take, for instance, a musical number that's shot in an exceptionally casual fashion, when Jenna incites a bored room of jaded New Yorkers into dancing to a dumb song from their youth. Director Gary Winick doesn't push it as far as he might, but the moment's tingly. (Much like Jenna's first glimpse of her adult shoe closet or when she inhales a second pina colada too many.)
13 Going On 30 is the seventh feature from the 43-year-old director, coming right after Tadpole. He's a producer as well, whose company InDigEnt is responsible for such movies as Pieces of April and Wim Wenders' upcoming Land of Plenty.
"I'd like to take any film that I do," he says, "and elevate it with honesty and emotions and relationships. Nils Mueller [Winick's friend and screenwriter of Tadpole], who I work with all the time, got to rewrite it in a way that I hope heightens that. I think Revolution [Studios, the production company] was a little afraid that, uh-oh, I was going to turn this into kind of an art film, and my response to that is, 'You couldn't turn this [story] into an art film even if you tried!'"
He didn't know Garner's work. "They sent me a couple of tapes of Alias and... I kind of didn't get that show." Winick says. "Clearly, she's a great dramatic actress but I didn't know if she was a comedic actress. That was totally a leap of faith."
The contortions of the plot settle nicely (despite a resemblance to the contrivances of the baleful The Butterfly Effect). "When Nils came up the wishing dust, that was a big whew. I mean, look, Billy Wilder says 'Every film starts with a coincidence.' This one starts with a huge coincidence! The nice thing is that the actual bones of the movie were in place. Thirteen gets her wish, finds out she doesn't like who she is and gets to go back and do it over again. The plots are easy on these kinds of films, because it's the same plot in every movie!" He laughs.
He wanted Ruffalo to commit without reading the script. "He was ready to do a romantic lead and of course he couldn't be Cary Grant because [his character] is Matt Flamhaff" (seen as a chubby teenager called "The Beaver")
Robert Zemeckis' customary cameraman, Don Burgess, gives the New York exteriors an admirable polish, unlike the mini-DV murk depicting the great locations in Tadpole. Winick also says he had the trust of studio head Joe Roth after successful previews, and was allowed to reshoot the beginning and ending to make the story stronger. "I shot for another nine days," he says, a luxury lifelong New Yorker Woody Allen once had but is no longer offered.
"I know, see, I'm the new Wood--" He stops himself from saying even one more word, with the biggest grin.
The roomful of movie critics laughs.