The ‘80s were weird. Within a two-year span, studios released four Freaky Friday-style body-swapping comedies, including Like Father, Like Son with Dudley Moore and Kirk Cameron, Vice Versa with Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and 18 Again with George Burns and Charlie Schlatter. The fourth was Big, and it’s the only one with any staying power. There are plenty of reasons why: Tom Hanks, in his first great role since Splash, channels the sweetness and whimsy of a 13-year-old trapped in the body of a 30-year-old. Elizabeth Perkins, as the toy company executive who takes an interest in this peculiar young upstart, is both disarming and heartbreaking in a very difficult role. And its director, Penny Marshall, deftly manages the tone, even as Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg’s script leads the audience into some strange and deeply uncomfortable situations.
And it should be uncomfortable, because it’s about a boy coming of age and losing his innocence in process—and that’s not easy under the best of circumstances. Before he makes a fateful wish to Zoltar, the fortune-telling machine, young Josh Baskin is a kid who’s still going to the carnival with his doting parents, and he hasn’t hit his growth spurt yet, which makes him too small for a carnival ride, leading to unfathomable humiliation in front of an older girl he likes. When his wish to be “big” is granted and he turns into Tom Hanks, it’s immediately revealed to be a curse: He terrifies his mother, played by Mercedes Ruehl, who suspects this older man has done something awful to her son. He flees to a flophouse in New York City, which is filled with the sounds of anger, gunshots and seedy characters. And even when he lucks into a job at a toy company and quickly works his way up the ranks, he isn’t sure how to handle Susan Lawrence, played by Elizabeth Perkins, an executive who not only likes him—but seems to like-like him. And how do you process those new feelings in a 30-year-old’s body?
The connection between Josh and Susan, Perkins’ character, should feel much skeevier than it does, especially once the innocence of their initial “sleepover” leads to a much more intimate adult relationship. Before sex, Josh is at a party, asking for a milkshake to wash down the awful taste of Beluga caviar; after sex, he’s asking his secretary for a cup of black coffee. The contrast is funny, but it should be unsavory, at least on paper. I’m reminded a little of a moment between Albert Brooks and Meryl Streep in Defending Your Life where they’re in the afterlife, and Streep is remembering her kids, whom she left behind in the accident that killed her. But, she decides, she feels okay about it. Something about the context of the place makes it possible to bear her loss without feeling burdened by it. That’s the magic of Big for me: In the context of this fantasy, an older woman sleeping with a 13-year-old can be processed as funny and ridiculous—and, in the end, surprisingly bittersweet for both parties.
Nevertheless, the question of how Big plays now is hard to avoid. Shea Serrano wrote a piece two years ago in The Ringer called “‘Big’ Is Secretly a Horror Movie” that lays out the wreckage Josh’s adventures leave in everyone else’s life. Serrano writes: “It’s a fun movie and a silly movie and a lighthearted movie. Except here’s the thing: It’s super not any of those things. It’s the reverse of all of those things. The only way it works as those things is if you look at it through Josh’s eyes, which is what you’re supposed to do because Josh is the centerpiece.” And, of course, he’s right, especially when he talks about how traumatic the experience is for Josh’s mother. But perspective matters, too. We do see the film through Josh’s eyes, and his actions are explicable at every turn, whether he’s playing with silly string and robot buildings or following through on a 13-year-old’s very real interest in the opposite sex. Big is a horror film when you think about it, but it’s not a horror film when you experience it. Or at least it isn’t for me. We’ll see how everyone else feels about it after the break.