Even the most devoted of 80s film fans has to admit occasionally that, while some 80s films hold up astonishingly well over time (Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Trading Places minus the weird bit when Dan Aykroyd blacks up, etc etc), others most definitely do not. But the reasons they disappoint vary. In some cases, you just have to assume that Tom Cruise was such an excitingly new figure back then that audiences didn’t notice he was in one of the stupidest films ever. In others, the entire premise of the film depended on some kind of novelty and seeing as that erstwhile novelty is now over 30 years old, the movie’s general flimsiness becomes impossible to endure. In other cases, though, it’s simply because you are a different age now to what you were in the 80s.
I first saw Big when I was about 10 years old, and I last saw it when I still lived at home with my parents as they owned the VHS tape of it, so about 16 years old. In other words, I was about the age of Josh Baskin, the 13 year old protagonist of the film, played alternately by an actual 13 year old (one who later got engaged to Kerry Washington, incidentally) and Tom Hanks. Obviously, I, like everyone I knew and know, loved the film. How could I not? The whole thing was like a kid’s fantasy of what it’s like to be an adult. And seeing as I was a kid when I watched it, I remembered all the kiddish things: the fact that he got a job playing with toys; his amazing apartment with a bunk bed and trampoline; the way he ate the baby corn; the way he danced on the piano. I vaguely remembered him having a girlfriend at the office, but that was very much overshadowed by the memory of him having a Pepsi machine in his apartment.
When I sat down to watch Big this week I did so with some trepidation. I worried that Hanks’ performance would be terrible. Yes, he got an Oscar nomination for it but since when has that been a guarantee of quality? I imagined him doing what adult actors always do when they have to act childlike, which is that they act like weird simpletons. I could already envisage Hanks basically doing a dress rehearsal for Forrest Gump, gurning away and spouting wise aphorisms while wowing New York. I was already feeling insulted on behalf of 13 year olds everywhere.
It turned out I needn’t have worried. Hanks is fantastic in this film, perfectly capturing the guileless, gawky mannerisms of a boy on the cusp of teenagehood without every getting too Gumpish. There was, for some reason, a lot of films in the 80s about adults and children swapping bodies, but it was Hanks who showed them how it was done. He is sweet without being a naïf, scared without being wet, appealing without being saccharine.
What I hadn’t taken into consideration, however, was that I was now watching this film close, not to Josh Baskin’s age, but to the age of Susan, his adult girlfriend, and, let me tell you, that gives you a whole new perspective on Big.
Now, let me say from the start that, in all other respects, I do like Big. Everyone in it is wonderful, especially the always wonderful Mercedes Ruehl who is just heartbreaking as his mother, and it’s always a special treat to see Jon Lovitz popping up in a film, playing Jon Lovitz. Jared Rushton, who plays Josh’s memorably named friend Billy Kopecki, is also pretty extraordinary considering the actor was 13 years old when they filmed it. Because 13 years old seems to me, from my vantage point now, like a child. A young child. We’ll get back to that later.
The film is as tight as a drum, never giving the audience time to think too much about the practicals, such as, how Josh opens a bank account when he gets his job and wouldn’t the police be looking for grown up Josh as the mother surely gave the police his physical description? Also, won’t the mother be a bit freaked out in a few years’ time when her little son grows up and she realises he looks identical to the man she thought kidnapped him? (I call that the Back to the Future Problem, in honour of the freak out George and Lorraine McFly must have had when their youngest son grew up to look, talk and walk exactly like their high school pal who they named him after.)
But then, an audience that’s going to accept that an arcade game at a funfair can make a kid age 17 years overnight is an audience that is willing to have its belief suspended. Incidentally, that whole Zoltar the Magnificent plot is ace. I read recently that in the original script for Groundhog Day there was some kind of explanation for why Phil got stuck living the same day over and over, and it had something to do with a curse being put on him by an exgirlfriend. Harold Ramis – bravely and brilliantly – decided just to do away with it and I thought at the time how clever that was, not tying the magic to a MacGuffin, as movies invariably do, but rather making the audience think that it could happen to anyone. But in Big they do the MacGuffin so well that to take out Zoltar would massively detract from the film. For a start, it’s such a creepy machine (as Josh rightly observes, it looks like the devil) and I love the detail about it only working when it’s unplugged. But it ties in with so many of the movie themes (computer games, childhood, family) that it becomes, really, the heart of the movie, an expression of Josh. Also, it has such a baller name and I’m not the only one to think so.
As a rule, I detest books and films that suggest true wisdom lies in naivete and those who are the most simple among us can, through the merit of their goodness, go the furthest, because it’s total bollocks. But I don’t even mind that in Big because, well, he works for a toy company. If childishness is going to help you anywhere it will probably help in a toy company.
Setpieces in films can be annoying, too: you know, those scenes that exist basically to be attention-grabbing and memorable. The piano scene in FAO Schwarz is a classic setpiece scene. But the reason the setpiece scenes in Big are still wellknown because they work, they are perfectly integrated and, as such, don’t feel clunky.
So Tom Hanks, magic machine, childlike wisdom, setpieces: I don’t mind any of that in Big. In fact, especially in the case of Hanks and Zoltar, I downright enjoy them. No, what I mind is the sex.
Allow me to reiterate this again: Josh is supposed to be 13. In the film, he then has – not a one night stand – but a relationship with Susan who is, it seems, about 30. I’m sorry, speaking as a 30something woman, this is weird and there’s no way around it. I’m sure there are some 13 year old boys in the world who would love to have sex with an adult woman but Josh is very clearly not that boy. Rather, it is made clear in the beginning of the film that he is the kind of kid who might have a crush on a girl his age but would be unable to talk to her. While Billy talks lasciviously about looking down a teacher’s blouse, 13 year old Josh can only giggle nervously. This is not a boy who is ready for a kiss, let alone sex, let alone sex with an adult.
Susan definitely makes all the advances to Josh, so it’s not unbelievable that something would eventually happen between them, but the idea that a 13 year old boy would then start to have a relationship with her, with a woman who is closer to his mother’s age than to his, is simply absurd. But credibility is not my issue here (after all, we are talking about a movie in which an arcade machine wields magic) but the ick factor. A plot about a 13 year old boy and a 30 year old woman has massive ick factor.
And let’s talk about Susan for a minute here. Sure, I can see that (grown up) Josh looks more fun than her current boyfriend, and I get the film’s point how that might feel liberating. But come on, the guy lives in basically the same apartment as The 40 Year Old Virgin and, as that later film wisely showed, it takes not just a very determined woman to look past that, but a man determined to grow out of it. Equally, if I’d found out that the man I’d been sleeping with for the past few weeks was actually a 13 year old, and then I saw him as a 13 year old, well, I would like to state for the record that I would not smile sentimentally as Susan does in the film. I would run screaming to the nearest psychiatrist and possibly become the first Jewish nun.
And what makes it even ickier is the movie didn’t even have to include it. Really, does Big need a romance plot? Or, at least, does it need to have such a major one? The romance with Susan becomes the main part of the film and it is, frankly, ick. A far more realistic and palatable romance plot is when a woman from the office flirts with Josh at the Christmas party and, having been told by Lovitz that she “will wrap her legs around you so tight you’ll scream for mercy”, he runs away in abject terror. That is funny. That is realistic. That is not ick.
Worse, the movie then suggests that the sex with Susan suddenly gives Josh mental as well as physical maturity. He becomes less childish, he wears suits and no longer hangs out with Billy. I hate it when movies suggest that sex bestows maturity (and I include The 40 Year Old Virgin in that) because, in my opinion, the opposite is generally true. Hell, sex makes adults behave like children most of the time. To suggest that sex ushers one into adulthood verges on immoral.
Another element that I hadn’t expected is, now that I am closer to the mother’s age than to Josh’s, I was much more aware of her this time round. I often felt actively annoyed with Josh when he was larking around with Billy in his apartment, or wowing his colleagues with his Transformer ideas, because I just kept thinking of his poor mother at home, wondering where on earth her kidnapped son was and what was happening to him. This newfound empathy undoubtedly has as much to do with my age as it does with the actress who played her as Mercedes Ruehl is, as she always is, so very good in this and, despite the film’s determined mood of levity, she can’t help but show the sad collateral damage in this fairy tale.
I don’t want to end on a downer about Big. It’s such a sweetheart of a film, after all, and it means no harm. Plus it is genuinely touching (I always almost cry at that scene when Josh plays his old computer game again, dealing with the ice wizard – I love it when 80s films show computer games, see also: Fred Savage in The Princess Bride.) Everyone’s great in it and Hanks fully deserved the boost this film gave him. But Big is a case in point that not every movie needs an adult romance. As Josh realises himself in the film, sometimes childish pleasures are enough.
Next week: Back to the Future