The International Writers Magazine
:DVD Review

13 Going On 30
Directed by Gary Winick
Dan Schneider

Jennifer Garner is an actress I’ve seen alot of, publicity-wise, but the only other thing I’d ever seen her in was the mediocre comic book film Daredevil, with her now husband Ben Affleck. There she was merely leather-clad eye candy. In 13 Going On 30 she proves she can act, and has a winsome Julia Roberts-like star quality.

But, the real find of the film is the performance of indie film actor Mark Ruffalo, as Garner’s love interest. The film is a romantic comedy that works, and very well, mainly because of a very smartly written script by Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith, excellent acting, and good direction by Gary Winick (known for the indie film Tadpole). The most famous films in the ‘body switch’ subgenre of romantic comedies are Tom Hanks’ 1980s hit Big, and the old and new versions of Freaky Friday. Yet, this film is superior in every way to those, because of the above mentioned factors.

The film opens with a young Jenna Rink (Christa Allen) getting humiliated at her 13th birthday party, in 1987, by a clique of mean girls, taking out her frustrations on her best friend, and next door neighbor Matt Flamhaff (Sean Marquette). He has brought her a pink ‘dream house’ he made by hand, for her Barbie dolls, and sprinkled it with ‘wishing dust’. As she whines that she wants to be ‘thirty, flirty and thriving’- a line from her favorite magazine, Poise, young Jenna is sprinkled with some of the wishing dust and wakes seventeen years later, Rip Van Winkle style, as Jennifer Garner, a sexy thirty year old magazine editor of the magazine she loved as a kid, Poise. The head of the clique of girls that humiliated her is now her best friend, and Jenna has an airhead New York Rangers hockey player (Sam Ball) as a beau, is a tyrant at work, and sleeps around. Of course, we learn this slowly through the film, as she is oblivious to it, and is her own thirteen year old self. This helps her rediscover her roots, which include a grown Matt, played by Ruffalo.

Over the course of events there are some delightful scenes of Garner and Ruffalo together, falling in love, even though he has a fiancé who lives in Chicago. She hires him to help her redesign the faltering magazine, even though we later learn she was, before her rediscovery of her thirteen year old self, the corporate spy for a rival magazine. Her friend, and former and still rival, Lucy (Judy Greer), perfect as a bitch with motives we can understand, is also competing with a redesign of her own. Jenna wins, but Lucy finds our Jenna was the spy and doublecrosses both her and the magazine, which folds. Jenna then tries to make it to Matt’s wedding, in time honored tradition, to stop it. They profess their love for each other, but, in a display of excellent writing, Matt does not go off with Jenna. He is too mature, and too much has passed between them. But, he gives Jenna the dream house, which he kept, after Jenna rejected it, all those years ago, when she ended their friendship after she blamed him for the cool crowd’s abandonment.

Jenna takes it outside, and without any words we see some real depth and complexity, as a breeze blows some remanent wishing dust on the older Jenna, and she’s back in the closet, moments before we last left her, as a thirteen year old. This time, when Matt opens the closet door she’s glad to see him, and pounces upon him with a kiss. Cut to years later, at approximately the same time as the ‘dream sequence’, and Matt and Jenna are now getting married, as the film fades out as they move into a real life pink dream house. This is a nice twist, and slides nicely between the happy ending of romantic comedies, and the ‘it’s was all a dream’ end of many works of fiction. That we’re not really sure which is the dream and which is the reality also works well.

This is, by its genre, not a film that should provoke such deep questions as, has Jenna really traveled through time or is she suffering a nervous breakdown that makes her unable to remember anything that happened after her thirteenth birthday?, or, is the film a momentary dream or psychological mystery? Yet, it has depths, conveyed by Ruffalo’s appealing realism. He never quite buys Jenna’s deal, and neither do the other collection of characters. Garner’s Jenna also has many realistic moments with such characters as her mother, especially when she goes home and her mom (Kathy Baker) makes her pancakes smiley faces. Any confused adult goes to the place where they’re always treated as a child. Others occur with her father (Phil Reeves), her boss (Andy Serkis - Gollum from The Lord Of The Rings trilogy), and assistant (Marcia DeBonis) at the magazine. Most of all, there are little moments between Ruffalo and Garner that are priceless, and convey the sense that these two characters, separated for years, still have an abiding connection. Their glances and body language act far better than most actors could do with a Shakespearean level script. Even their younger versions have a romantic chemistry. Christa Allen’s Jenna looks like a younger, more awkward Jennifer Garner - one of those girls who is not popular but will become a goddess, and Matt is not a real geek, just a kid who knows himself well enough not to care what the cool kids think, despite their calling him Beaver. We later find out that the older version of Tom -Tom (Alexandra Kyle), her tormentor-cum-pal Lucy, is the insecure one- who had a nose job. Jenna is somewhere in between, as she tells Matt, ‘I don’t want to be original, I want to be cool.’ All the kids are so well cast and act so well that a whole film could have been made about them- they are far more believable than many kids in ‘serious’ films.

The film score is a bit odd, with 80s songs from the early 80s, not the 1987 the film claims, such as Head Over Heels, Burnin’ Down the House, Thriller, Crazy For You, Love Is A Battlefield, and Jessie’s Girl, by Rick Springfield, a one hit wonder from 1981 that Jenna has the hots for, even though six years is an eternity to a thirteen year old. But some of the idiotic things that occur at the office, while seemingly over-the-top to those who’ve not worked such jobs, are very real. The script is far better than many ‘serious’ Sundance artsy films, yet these sorts of film rarely get recognition because of their ‘light’ status- as if comedy is easy to do well. The fact that it undermines many of the clichés of the genre (such as Jenna’s realizations of her true older character) has not gone noticed in many published reviews, and that’s a shame, because it’s very deftly written. This film definitely elevates the genre, as the commentary by Winick hopes.

  The DVD features are two commentaries: director Winick’s excellent one, light on fellatio and high on scene and film explanation, and one by three female producers, very high on fellatio. There’s a making of video, trailers, a piece on how the main adult actors were as kids, and two music videos: Pate Benatar’s Love Is A Battlefield, and Rick Springfield’s Jessie’s Girl.

I very much recommend this film, and think that in fifty years it will be seen as a classic of its kind, much like It’s A Wonderful Life has become, even though it was critically brutalized upon its release. It will also be noted that this film was the one that officially launched Garner on her way to film stardom. She can do action, comedy, and drama, and all better than the other starlets of the day, for she’s a better actor than most, and has that girl next door appeal that makes her a goddess that Joe Average (think Ruffalo’s looks) can realistically believe he’d get. That’s something in itself, and not to be underestimated in filmic appeal.
© Dan Schneider November 2005
Poetry and Soul

See also Coffee and Cigarettes

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