Big (1988)

Director: Penny Marshall

Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton

I can’t think of a single person I knew when I was twelve who said they wanted to skip the rest of their youth and just dive right into adulthood. How many at that age would be thinking about much of the world beyond their own backyard? No, when it comes to the subject of being uncomfortable with oneself at the onset of puberty, most kids are usually just wishing they were just a little taller. Without a more extensive vocabulary, finding the right words to explain their deficiency could be difficult. So many words have multiple meanings. You can say one thing, and it can be interpreted in several different ways, not all of them good. The English language works in mysterious ways.

Josh Baskin is an average twelve-year old who plays computer games and watches New York Giants football games (Super Bowl XXI, in particular), but also has fun playing outdoors with his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton). Josh also has a crush on one of the popular girls at school, who may or may not take a liking to him as well, but at least she’s nice. He has never gone anywhere without an adult chaperone, including one fateful night at the fair. He wants desperately to get on one of the “scary rides” with the blonde he likes, but according to the rules he isn’t tall enough. Later, he stumbles upon a wish-granting machine which seems to be able to function despite its power cord not being plugged in. He makes his wish, and wakes up the next morning as an adult somewhere in his early 30’s.

The novelty of the “child trapped in an adult’s body” story wore itself thin long ago, even before “Big” was released in 1988. However, actor Tom Hanks’ performance is such that it allows you to set aside the fantastical elements of the movie and believe that you are really watching a twelve-year old boy experiencing the world as a 30-year old man. When he checks into a cheap motel in a rather ugly part of town, we can see the fear building in Josh’s face. When he gets hired by the MacMillan toy company, his work ethic is that of a kid with a pile of homework due the next morning, rather than that of an office worker who paces himself because everyone else does. His initiative quickly grabs the attention of his boss (Robert Loggia), who gives him a big office and the dream job of every kid: playing with toys for a living! The apartment he rents afterwards is all kinds of cool: He has a trampoline, bunk beds, toys scattered all over the place and… my personal favorite… a Pepsi machine.

Among the songs that make up the soundtrack to “Big,” of course the most widely associated is “Heart and Soul,” but there is another which is likely lost on the current generation, in large part due to the practice of “sampling.” Everybody knows Will Smith’s 1997 hit “Men in Black” from the movie of the same name, right? But how many, I wonder, will remember Patrice Rushen’s 1982 song “Forget Me Nots”? Listen to it. I guarantee you’ll find something about it that sounds eerily familiar.

The movie’s heart is built from Josh’s budding relationship with Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), one of his co-workers at MacMillan Toys. From the earlier scenes in the film where Josh has trouble even speaking to girls, we are to assume that he has never been close to any member of the opposite sex (other than his mom, which doesn’t count). Hanks is able to get this point across in several ways, notably in Josh’s interpretation of what “spending the night” means. Susan has become used to life as an adult. When we first meet her, she acts just as serious as all the other grown-ups. But through her time spent with Josh, Susan is reminded how to “have fun” again. She has moved from one boyfriend to the next, finding each one to be immature. Josh seems different to her, though not in the way we know him to be. I often wonder what kind of person Susan would have been without ever meeting Josh. Would she have become increasingly jaded and bitchy like Celia Hodes, Perkins’ character from TV’s “Weeds”?

As a child, “Big” was my introduction to actor Tom Hanks, and I’ve always thought it a very special little movie. Hanks is one of my favorite actors, and I recently thought to give a look at some of his career’s highlights. By “career highlights,” I mean the ones I have on DVD. I believe it fitting to start off where my affinity for the man’s career began. In addition to being charming as hell, “Big” also points out how important it is to go through the trials and tribulations of growing up. There is so much we would miss out on… both good and bad… if we just skipped our teens and 20’s. Likewise, as much as we might want to revisit or even change some part of our past, would that not also theoretically result in our becoming someone different? The best course of action, it seems to me, is to accept that there will be those rides which we’re not yet tall enough to ride, but that a little patience will one day give us the chance to jump on that roller coaster as often as we like.

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