Fantasy Comedy | 104 Minutes | 1988 | United States
* * *
The last of a cluster of movies, all released within the space of a year between the autumn of 1987 and the summer of 1988, to depict youths turning into or swapping forms with adult men – the others were Like Father Like Son (1987), Vice Versa (1988), 18 Again! (1988), and the Italian film Da grande (1987), which is often cited as the inspiration for Big – in Big thirteen-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow) finds himself too small to warrant a seat on a carnival ride or the attentions of an older girl. He stumbles frustrated upon an oriental-themed fortune telling machine called Zoltar Speaks, and although it is unplugged, it grants him his wish. The next morning, he is aged thirty (now played by Tom Hanks), and dismissed by his frantic mother heads to New York City to find a room to live and a place to work.
The preponderance of this sort of thing towards the end of the 1980s might suggest a resonance for viewers who, in an era of big hair and synthpop but also banking failures, rising neoliberalism, and industry shifts, felt somehow disembodied, as though the world was insisting that they grow up too quick. But shorn of the context provided by similar films, on first viewing today Big struggles to overcome the questions posed by its conceit. Fair enough that Josh’s mother fails to comprehend the situation, and spends the remainder of the film pining for the son she believes to be the victim of kidnap, and that Josh’s father is peculiarly absent after the switch, ignorant, uncaring, or simply preoccupied despite his son’s face being plastered across milk cartons.
But what do we make of a relationship between a grown woman, Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), and Josh who mentally remains thirteen, which beyond the initial teasing and smutty double entendres becomes explicitly sexual? Can we enjoy Josh’s frolics amid lingering questions and suspicions over how the film is going to end? On repeated viewings – and Big is one of those films which is perpetually shown on TV – the picture cannot overcome the burden of its sad ending, which is distressing not only because Josh forsakes romance or will struggle to recover his childhood innocence, surely lost somewhere along the way and for good. The ending feels like a retreat, a conservative dictum about family values which allows nothing to be learned or left spare. And from the outside, it is hard to root for the return of a faceless child actor when we have spent the last hour more or less getting along with a prime comic-era Tom Hanks.
The main cast all turn in faintly enjoyable and rounded performances, but their roles are not sufficiently developed for Big to be regarded as a character study. Nor does it offer any sensible lesson about the need for adults to embrace their inner child, or vice versa: as an adult Josh seems to function better than most, at least within the confines of his particular career, but it is not enough. Urged by his only confidant, his thirteen-year-old best friend Billy Kopecki (Jared Rushton) – who remains suitably bratty rather than attaining a wisdom beyond his years – he decides to seek out Zoltar Speaks and reverse his wish.
Big grasps for lightness of tone, but beyond its irredeemable narrative arc the fun tends to be quashed by office politics, even if Josh is being paid to test toys. The film’s best-known scene, where Josh bumps into his boss Mr MacMillan (a wonderful Robert Loggia) in a toy store and they perform ‘Heart and Soul’ and ‘Chopsticks’ on the walking piano, is engaging less because Josh’s youthful exuberance inspires the older man, more because MacMillan shows a touching readiness to interact and find some measure of common ground.