In late 1987/early 1988, within a nine-month period, Hollywood gave us four – count ‘em four – movies with the same exact premise. Colloquially called the “body switching” movies, they took their conceit from a not bad Disney comedy from 1976: a child or teen and an adult somehow switch places, physically, while retaining the psyche of their previous selves. Like Father, Like Son and Vice Versa followed the formula exactly, while 18 Again just focused on the adult (George Burns) with a teenager’s mentality. And Big, starring Tom Hanks just focused on the child. A smart move, it turned out – it eliminated all the back and forth between the two characters. Another smart move – it forewent a heavy-handed explanation for its conceit, opting instead to just have Hanks as child because the child wished it in front of a preternatural fortune-telling machine. All these moves easily paid off in the end: released in June of ’88, Big was the last of this short-lived subgenre, and easily the best.
But the main reason it stood so far out from the others is the fact that it got the most metaphorical value from its premise. Sure, it was fun to see Hanks eat a mini corncob like a real one but aren’t we really talking about our own innocence, our own insecurities, in trying to navigate the adult world that seems to be getting more adult every day? How many times have we tackled a problem by stepping back and looking at it from a simpler perspective, much like Josh climbs the ladder of success at a toy company just by determining what’s fun to play with? (Just like Chauncey Gardner’s similar rise in Being There.) And how often do we struggle in relationships because we feel so emotionally immature, not unlike Josh’s total bewilderment when his “girlfriend,” Susan (Elizabeth Banks) asks him, “Where are are?” Nearly every scene in Big is underlaid with the resonance of real life situations, and the beauty of it is we still consciously appreciate it for the surface-level comedy that it sells itself as.
The story by now is familiar to anyone not living under a rock since the 80s: young Josh gets his wish, turns Big, gets to design a line of toys at a company in New York and falls in love with his beautiful co-worker, Susan, or at least falls in love as much as a 13-year-old boy has the capacity to do. The main plot thrust is essentially Josh, and his still-child best friend Billy, attempting to track down that fortune-telling machine. The script smartly sets up a convenient waiting time – 6 weeks – to accomplish this, so the adult Josh can carry on in the adult world before finally getting down to brass tacks and returning home (despite some initial hesitation, and a near-best buddy breakup).
Of course we knew that had to be the ending, right? And for that matter, there are few structural surprises in the film – we can pretty much call this one before the opening credits even start. But yet, there are surprises – the punchlines, for example, mostly dealing with the double entendres of child/adult world, are fresh and witty. [Favorites: Interviewer: “Did you pledge?” (college); Josh: “Every morning,” and Josh (getting first payckeck): “175 dollars?”; Jon Lovitz: “Yeah, they really screw you, don’t they?”] And the tone is just pitch-perfect. I’ve always said that it’s all about tone, and it couldn’t be truer here. It’s just playful and fanciful enough to carry a premise we might be doubting otherwise, but never too heavy so as to come off pretentious and self-important.
Perfect example: After a few dates with Susan, 13-year-old Josh loses his virginity to her. Although only hinted at, it’s pretty obvious it happens, and if one were to think long and hard about it, it’s pretty sick. In the real world, it would have enormous psychological ramifications, but in Big, it happens, a mild joke is made of it (he comes in to work the next day on Cloud 9) and it’s never heard about again. The movie deals with it perfectly, and it matches the playful tone it sets up from the beginning. The main drama here deals with love, as a movie of this nature ought to do.
Credit for this tone must be accorded where due, and that would be Big’s screenwriters, Gary Ross (Pleasantville) and Anne Spielberg (Steven’s sister), and of course director Penny Marshall. Marshall no doubt recommended Hanks for the lead role as both were good friends through their work on television, and her sitcom work, both in front of and behind the camera, affords her the soft touch necessary to manage the material.
And then there’s the lynchpin of the whole thing: Tom Hanks’ performance. I honestly can’t think of any other movie star of the time that could’ve made this work. Sure, Robin Williams comes immediately to mind, since we always think of him as a child in an adult body anyway. But he would’ve had trouble with the film’s crucial third act, where Josh grows a little in his attempts to assimilate into he grownup world. Hanks deftly maintains the balance of natural impish abandon and mature sensibility – the same sort of balance he would later use in his Oscar-winning role in Forrest Gump.
But it really all started with Big, the film that put Hanks on the map as a talent to be reckoned with. His Bachelor Party days officially behind him, he was ready to go on and set the cinematic world on fire - with The ‘Burbs, Turner and Hooch, The Bonfire of the Vanities…
Well eventually, anyway. But Big was the game-changer, and deservedly so. See it, if you haven’t already.