Before Tom Hanks began appearing in serious films, he made a name for himself doing comedy. Most of them were romantic comedies, formulaic pieces of cinema where guy and girl are put in ridiculous situations and end up falling in love. I guess Hollywood thinks true love is a joke? Okay, there are romance movies that are played straight, but they do not seem as common as romantic comedies. This genre can be hit or miss for me, and most of the time I sit through them not laughing and predicting what is about to happen. See There’s Something About Mary (1998) for recent evidence of my feelings on this matter. However, while one could classify today’s entry, Big (1988), in the same category, I would suggest to you that there is a little more going on with it.
Young Josh Baskin (David Moscow) is a typical thirteen year old kid living in the suburbs of New York City. He hangs out with his next door neighbor and best friend Billy Kopecki (Jared Rushton), and they go to school and play sports together. One evening at a local carnival, Josh and Billy run into a young lady that Josh has a crush on standing in line for a ride. When Josh’s attempt to go on the ride with her is thwarted by his height, he slinks away dejected. This is when he has a fateful encounter with a fortune teller machine called Zoltar at the edge of the arcade. Depositing a quarter and smacking it a couple times to get it to work, he wishes to be big. A card then slides out proclaiming that his wish is granted and he goes home to bed. The next morning he wakes up and he is in the body of a grown man (Tom Hanks). When he encounters his mother (Mercedes Ruehl), she goes berserk thinking there is an intruder in the house. Distressed to find somebody who will believe what has happened to him, Josh turns to Billy and convinces his friend of his identity by singing their secret song. Billy agrees to help Josh, and together they head into New York City to find some place to stay while they try and find the Zoltar machine. In record time, and in the middle of a storm no less, the carnival had packed up and moved away before Josh could get back to it. When their search proves fruitless, they put in a records request with the city government. Because this is the government, this is going to take months to complete. In order to get by, Josh needs to find employment. What better job is there for a thirteen year old trapped in an adult’s body than to work for a toy company? Though he takes a lower position, his youthful enthusiasm soon comes to the attention of the head of the company Mr. MacMillan (Robert Loggia). Everyone in his business are the usual ambitious corporate types who see profit margins as the driving force behind the products they offer children. In Josh, Mr. MacMillan recognizes a person who understands what kids actually want, and thus he promotes the young man (no pun intended) to a lead position in development. His new role attracts others within the company, namely Susan Lawrence (Elizabeth Perkins), another executive eager to rise. They are more formally introduced at a company party, and at first her sole desire is to essentially sleep with Josh in order to gain insight into his talents. When this does not go as planned, they end up growing an attachment to each other. I struggled with how to describe that because, after all, Josh is really a teenager and Susan is a grown woman. The film also suggests that they were carnally intimate with each other, which is really strange when you think about it. At any rate, for her there is a simplicity to him that she finds to be a refreshing change from her co-workers, and for him it is a first crush. In the course of them getting to know each other, though, Josh begins to grow up. He stops wearing the adult versions of teenager clothing and begins donning suits for work. He also stops hanging out with Billy as much, and when his best friend reminds him of who he really is, it shakes Josh. Not long after, he receives news of where the Zoltar machine currently resides. Abruptly departing in the middle of presentation with Susan, he heads to its location, inserts his quarter, and wishes to be a kid again. Susan arrives there too just after the wish has been made, and it is then that he finally reveals his true nature. They share one last kiss before he departs her car after she gives him a ride home, and as he walks away he reverts to being a thirteen year old boy. It ends with him being reunited with his mother.
When you analyze certain elements Big logically, they can be truly bizarre. Yes, Josh looks like a man, but he is still thirteen and has an adult fall in love with him. Also, if you read the above review and thought it sounded vaguely familiar, 13 Going on 30 (2004) is basically the same movie. There are a few others like it, and the reason for their being so many retellings of this story is because you can all relate to the young Josh’s desire to be older. Who among us did not wish to be grown up before our time? Many of us probably raged to our parents about how whatever we were struggling with in a moment was unfair, and that when we were their age things would be different. From there came the obligatory admonishment about not growing up too fast, and to enjoy being young. Sage advice, though it never seemed that way when we were thirteen. This is why Big works because it demonstrates how kids are really not ready to be adults. You could argue that Josh actually thrives, and gets everything an early thirty-something career person could ever want. But we see his lack of emotional maturity in his dealings with Susan, and they come to a head when he is about to give his presentation towards the end. Every step of our development is a gift from God, and they should be explored to their fullest. This is how we gain wisdom.
Even though the ultimate lesson of Big is to not grow up too fast, I also appreciate the youthfulness Josh brings to his job. The Bible teaches us that the Kingdom of Heaven is meant for the childlike, and Jesus illustrates this by displaying an actual child to His disciples. Now, this teaching is not telling us to necessarily act like kids. Instead, what it speaks to is the simplicity with which children view the world. They have a clear sense of right and wrong that is not muddled by the hang-ups and insecurities that come with adulthood. For example, a child seeing a person in trouble on the side of the road might not hesitate to stop because they are thinking about being late to work. We can see this in how Josh behaves. While there is a certain loss of innocence on his part, and that is something he clearly feels towards the end, before then he treats Susan with the kind of respect a kid might show any grown up. Susan certainly expects one thing to happen during their first night together at Josh’s apartment, but instead they spend the night sleeping in different levels of a bunkbed, and he hands her a glow-in-the-dark compass ring so that she will not lose her way. Adults tend to do that, but God calls us to our true north.
As great as the message of simplicity is in Big, there are a few adult situations. It is interesting, though, on many levels. There are the big moments already discussed, but there are subtle instances. One that comes to mind is how after Josh and Susan start up their relationship, you no longer see Susan smoking. I also appreciate the reunion between Josh and his mother at the end, as well as how he checks in with her throughout even though she thinks he is someone else. Because there are some deeper themes going on, I do not recommend this for the whole family. But it still holds up today, and there is value in watching it.