A girl shouldn't mind losing 17 years if it means she can make her dreams come true. That's the conceit behind "13 Going on 30," the contagious but dopey first star vehicle for TV's Jennifer Garner. The movie is tailor-made for women who openly lust for dream houses, dream jobs, and dream hubbies. Does the movie's heroine get what she wants? And do you feel good about it? Yes, and sort of.
The movie begins in 1987, just before Jenna Rink's 13th birthday. At her party, Jenna (Christa B. Allen) is locked in a closet in her basement, expecting to make out with a cute boy. But he and the popular girls leave, swiping the cheese curls and the school project Jenna said she'd do for Lucy (Alexandra Kyle), the head chick. On the way out, Lucy pushes chubby Matt Flamhaff (Jack Salvatore Jr.) into the closet; Jenna rebuffs Matt's advances as Madonna's "Crazy for You" cries on the soundtrack. Miserable (and a little naive), Jenna wishes aloud that she were 30. (Poise, her favorite magazine, implies that's when life begins.) In the next scene, decades have passed and she wakes up as Garner -- a gorgeous, confused woman who has no idea where her flat chest went or what that ringing in her purse is about. Jenna has become an editor at Poise, which looks like a photoshopped mix of Cosmo, Jane, and Lucky. Adding to the oddness, her best friend and coworker is the same nefarious Lucy (Judy Greer). Apparently, Jenna's been nothing but mean since that 13th birthday, so no one recognizes the bright-eyed goofball who's pitching story ideas and actually stopping to talk in the office hallways.Written by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, "13 Going on 30" is proudly square. When the company party tanks, Poise's English editor-in-chief implores someone to do something. (The boss is Andy Serkis, Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings,"; even in the flesh, he's creepy-charming.) Jenna tells the DJ to play "Thriller," and she gets everybody to reenact the video's spooked choreography. Michael Jackson, for once, isn't the problem. It's that director Gary Winick ("Tadpole") doesn't use the moment to spark the movie. Watching Garner and the rest of the cast earnestly dance like ghouls, I cringed the way I might have had this happened at a party I was actually attending. The amateurishness isn't cute, it's scary. "13 Going on 30" is a vague remake of Penny Marshall's 1988 "Big," in which a kid pleads to be taller, wakes up in Tom Hanks's body, and makes a huge splash in the Manhattan advertising world. It was a feel-good comedy that didn't simply peddle digestible, comforting fantasies. Marshall maintained both her hero's loneliness and his realization that children are children for a reason. The movie was about a boy increasingly let down by the adult world.
Jenna just seems to be on a dreamy market-driven reconnaissance mission, not a self-reflective journey. But Winick does include some nice details: the way Jenna starts to write her name at the top of a page of ruled paper before a work meeting, and the way she convinces the girls in her Fifth Avenue apartment that Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" is profound. (It is.) As the physically uncertain Jenna, Garner is funny, whether grabbing her new breasts, nervously raising her hand at business meetings, or trying desperately to catch up with almost 17 years of missed slang and popular culture. (Her blocky shoulders suggest four years of college crew, or several seasons of "Alias," her espionage gig on ABC, but never mind.) She even uses giddy wonder to overcome the cruel dresses and hair accessories the movie makes her wear.
At some point, Mark Ruffalo shows up as a grownup Matt, who also lives in New York and still has a thing for Jenna. But he also has a long-distance fiancee in Chicago, and here I could no longer deny the movie's banality. It's looking for comedy and romance in the obvious places.
In fact, the best stuff in "13 Going on 30" involves the childhood preamble. (The young actors playing Jenna, Matt, and Lucy are terrific.) Those moments feel painfully, comically true. Most of the stuff in the adult world is just spunkless wish fulfillment.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.