Film Review: Big (1988)



“Be careful what you wish for” is a proverb that was used very well as premise for the plot of Big, 1988 fantasy comedy directed by Penny Marshall, one of the most popular films of its time. Protagonist, played by David Moscow, is Josh Baskin, 12-year old boy from New Jersey who gets frustrated by his short stature, whether because for romantic feelings for slightly older and taller girl from school or inability to enjoy carnival ride. At amusement park he finds strange fortune-telling machine called Zoltar and inserts a coin into it, wishing to become “big”. Next day it turns out that the machine indeed grants wishes because Josh wakes up in a body of an adult man (played by Tom Hanks). Since his mother (played by Mercedes Ruehl) can’t believe that the stranger in the house is her son, he is forced to run from home. Thankfully, his best friend Billy Francis Kopecki (played by Jared Rushton) believes him and helps him in his efforts to return to his previous condition. Unfortunately, Zoltar machine is nowhere to be found and the quest would have to take time; Josh is forced to rent room in seedy New York hotel and seek job. He finds it as a clerk in MacMillan Toy Company where his boyish enthusiasm catches attention of its owner Mr. McMillan (played by Robert Loggia). Ability to understand modern toys in a way adults can’t brings him quick promotion, high salary and new home, while, at the same time fellow executive Susan Lawrence (played by Elizabeth Perkins) becomes attracted to him. Josh has a time of his life and begins to question his original intention to return to his childhood, but at the same time also feels nostalgic towards his family.

Some films historians describe Big as the film that “came out of nowhere” and became smash hit despite having formidable competition at the box office. In reality, that film had some notable names behind it. Those included co-writer Anne Spielberg, sister of the uncrowned king of 1980s Hollywood. Script she wrote together with Gary Ross was surprisingly well-written, providing perfect combination of family-friendly comedy, sentimentalism and even some light drama. Script used fantastic premise to tell the tale about two paradoxical trends in modern Western societies – desire of children to become grown ups and enjoy perks of adult world on one hand; and desire of adults to return to carefree irresponsible lifestyle of their childhood. What is even more interesting about this film is that avoids cliches; there isn’t any villain in traditional sense, with Paul Davenport, Josh’ fellow executive and Susan’s former boyfriend (played by John Heard), being the closest to that role. Script is also very intelligent in the way presents fantastic premise in realistic manner; Josh, suddenly brought to adult body acts in rational manner in his attempts to extract himself from strange new situation. Big also handles issues of sexuality in realistic and convincing manner, although some of viewers today might find the romance between (mentally) teenage Josh and adult Susan somewhat icky.

The greatest asset of Big is, however, its main star. Hanks was at the time specialised for comedies but this film provided him rare opportunity to show the range, skill and dedication that would later be associated with his better known and more dramatic roles. In order to perfectly embody boy in adult man’s body he prepared very well and spent a lot of time with young David Moscow in order to pick up his mannerisms. The result of this effort was not only another confirmation of his stardom, but also his first Oscar nomination. Hanks’ acting was well-matched by the work of his partner Elizabeth Perkins, actress who confidently portrays transformation of her character from frustrated workaholic at the beginning into a woman who manages to discover inner child in herself. Young actors also did good job, just like great character actor Robert Loggia in one of the rare opportunities to play father-like figure at this point of his career.

Penny Marshall, former star of television sitcoms, did a decent job as a director in her second feature film. She used low-key approach, not allowing props, sets or locations to distract from the plot and characters. Same can be said for musical score by Howard Shore, which is also low-key. Marshall, however, displayed some problems with pacing, which made Big rather slow, especially near the end. This problem is even worse in so-called “Extended Edition”, which is more than two hours long. However, in that version, many viewers would find enough entertainment even if they aren’t too nostalgic towards 1980s or their childhood.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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