Big is one of those movies that gets better with multiple viewings. For a film that is so simple (despite its high concept) in structure and largely devoid of high stakes or melodrama, it has a certain hold over the viewer that is not easily explained. You may not laugh out loud during Big and you may not even shed a tear, but I for one think the experience is as involving as any movie I’ve so far covered in this blog series.
Director Penny Marshall’s deft touch and her focus on small character moments quickly endears us to the characters, who are at once fantastical and relatable. It’s quite a feat given the film tells the story of 13 year-old Josh (played by David Moscow) who one fateful evening sees a creepy looking, wish-granting Zoltar machine abandoned at the edge of a carnival. He makes a wish to become big (a wish ambiguous enough to be dangerous – what if he had turned into a giant man?) and the machine ‘grants’ his wish. In a nice touch, Josh then notices that the machine was unplugged the whole time! There’s a bad storm that night (of course) and in the morning Josh wakes up and finds himself to have miraculously turned into a 30-year old man (played by Tom Hanks).
The film is mostly about what happens to Josh as an adult. He gets a top-end job working at a toy manufacturer after he and the owner (Robert Loggia in a rare mellow role) discuss what makes a great toy and play a duet on a giant piano. He is faced with people jealous of his success at work. He gets a girlfriend (Elizabeth Perkins), and rents a huge apartment in New York. While his parents grieve for 13 year-old Josh at home, believing him to be kidnapped or worse, he is loving being an adult.
80’s movies frequently disappoint me with their shallow characterizations, but Big does go deep. Perkins’s Susan starts out as seemingly a thankless part – another jealous corporate villain, but soon she becomes the most interesting character of the film. As well written as the role is, 30-year old Josh is a high concept caricature – a kid stuck in an adult man’s body. But Susan is the one who acts as the audience surrogate. We see the relationship between them through her eyes, her emotions. When her now ex-boyfriend Paul (John Heard) asks her what she sees in Josh, she authoritatively declares “He’s a grown-up!” We are not supposed to laugh – the line is true, in the way truth is so often multi-faceted when it pertains to describing an emotion, a feeling or even a human being.
In my mind Big is pretty much essential filmmaking. Some might point to the fact that Susan indirectly has sex with a 13-year old, in order to detract from the screenplay structure. I think it’s part of what makes the film’s high concept interesting. It goes there. Josh does have a sexual relationship when he’s 30. It’s not shorthand for coming-of-age. It’s essential to his experiences as an adult.
I still remember the first time I saw Big. I must have been about 7 or 8 years old, and my easily impressionable mind had a field day. I still remember the initial fear of the Zoltar machine. The fun of the giant piano scene. The sadness of having to live away from one’s parents. Overall, I would say that there’s nary a misstep here. Big holds up just as well as it did 30 years ago. And for those of you who have not seen it, I strongly recommend you reward yourself with this warm hug of a film. A-
The coming-of-age genre is filled with movies that have become film classics, especially the ones written by John Hughes. While Big isn’t a Hughes film, it shows that he wasn’t the only one capable of creating likable, conflicted and true-to-life teenagers for the big screen. Big has over the years gained popularity, especially in the late 90’s to early 2000’s. Penny Marshall went on to make some films after that (with Awakenings being a stand-out), but for my money she demonstrates how to best mix drama and comedy in this film.
For Tom Hanks, the film came at a time when he used his physical appearance to his full advantage – playing often silly characters of which Josh is seen as a favorite, and rightly so. Hanks has some genius acting moments here. The rest of the main cast of course already had or went on to have great acting careers.
Next I’ll be watching the Robert Zemeckis live action/animation mix Who Framed Roger Rabbit. See you then!
1988 #15: The Great Outdoors
1988 #14: Time of the Gypsies
1988 #13: Bull Durham
1988 #12: A Short Film About Love
1988 #11: Heathers
1988 #10: Coming to America
1988 #9: Beetlejuice
1988 #8: Cinema Paradiso