The Age-Defying Charms of 13 Going on 30

About two-thirds of the way through De Palma, Noah Baumbach’s and Jake Paltrow’s superb documentary about director Brian De Palma, the man of the hour reflects on the making of his Vietnam drama, Casualties of War — particularly the volatile dynamic between stars Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn.

Though Fox was already a bonafide movie star by the time of the late ’80s production, thanks to Back to the Future, Teen Wolf, and The Secret of My Success, he was also still playing Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties, the TV show that first brought him national prominence. Sensing a potential identity crisis with his more famous counterpart, whose film work up to that point was largely in line with his “aw, shucks” small-screen roles, Penn used every opportunity to rankle him.

After a series of on-set provocations by Fox’s notorious method-actor co-star, including getting knocked to the ground in a pivotal scene that, in De Palma’s words, helped “bring out something in Michael that he was having some difficulty getting to,” Penn still had one final shiv up his sleeve. During the film’s climactic court-martial, in which Penn’s unscrupulous Meserve walks by Fox’s principled Eriksson and quietly drops hints of revenge, Penn took full advantage of the multiple takes.

“I think he whispered once to him, ‘Television actor,’” De Palma recalls with an extended laugh. “Good old Sean — very exciting to work with.” Despite Penn’s questionable antagonism, his antics inspired one of Fox’s best performances, and arguably the one that most fully showcases his range as an actor.

If any such stories exist of Jennifer Garner being bullied and/or shoved in a locker by co-star Judy Greer on the set of 13 Going on 30, they’re protected behind multiple layers of pinky swears and similar binding contracts. By contrast, the film’s lone “controversy” appears to be Mark Ruffalo allegedly almost quitting the production over his inability to nail the iconic choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, but there’s more in common with Garner’s and Fox’s experiences than one may think.

Far greater than “a female Big,” as many critics and viewers dubbed it at the time, the supernatural rom-com (which turns 20 on Tuesday, April 23, and is currently available to stream on Netflix) remains an antidote to the godawful films that attempted to capitalize on the action hero appeal that Garner flexed in her breakthrough ABC series, Alias.

Rather than play another CIA operative in her first feature-length starring role, Garner goes undercover in a different way. With help from magical wishing dust and a deep-rooted desire to be “30 and flirty and thriving,” she travels from the humiliation of Jenna Rink’s 13th birthday party in 1987 (during which the character is played by Christa B. Allen) to 2004 Manhattan, where her teenage self inhabits the body of Garner’s Poise magazine editor Jenna Rink.

From the moment grown-up Jenna freaks out at the sight of herself in her swanky apartment’s mirror, Garner wholly commits to the comedic absurdity of the fantasy circumstances and throws herself into the performance. With her pitched pubescent voice, cartoonish facial and physical reactions, and grossed-out responses to adult conversations, she sells the oddball assignment remarkably well.

Garner adds to these delights with wide-eyed wonder as Jenna marvels at the fabulous parts of her apparently successful life, particularly her lavish closet and shapely body. The manifestation of her teenage interests, knowledge, and values in settings that seemingly call for manners beyond Jenna’s maturity yield consistent generational-clash smiles.

Why wouldn’t someone in her position inspire a stuffy corporate party to get down to “Thriller,” flirt with a teenage boy at a restaurant, or compliment the fashion sense of her “fellow” 13-year-old neighbor? She’s a goddamn teenager in an adult’s body, inexplicably zapped to her future — it’s a miracle she doesn’t instantly suffer a panic attack and spend the rest of the film in a psychiatric ward. Instead, Garner makes viewers believe that Jenna could find the wherewithal to navigate these strange times and figure out a path forward without completely losing her mind.

Part of that convincing stems from screenwriters Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith giving Garner the chance to show some vulnerability, namely when Jenna realizes her wished-for adult self isn’t a nice person at all – in fact, she cut off her childhood neighbor and best friend Matt (played as an adult by Ruffalo) after her time-traveling wish.

These moments of heartbreak and introspection ironically have more in common with the emotional complexities of Garner’s Alias character, Sydney Bristow, than the half-assed attempts during and in the wake of that TV series to turn Garner into a big-screen action star. In her failed pre-MCU Marvel Studios effort Elektra and the disastrous Peppermint, which greatly overestimates her credibility as a bloodthirsty vigilante, Garner plays characters whose depths don’t come close to rivaling that of Jenna, much less Sydney.

As such, those would-be thrilling films undervalue Garner’s skill set. Kicking ass is great and all, but the more she’s given to work with, the greater the outcome. The same goes for Garner’s non-action parts — respectable yet largely indistinguishable mom/wife/girlfriend roles in Juno, Dallas Buyers Club, Danny Collins, and Draft Day, plus a host of forgettable family-friendly efforts. None call for more than a basic assignment, and while she nevertheless delivers what’s called for, 13 Going on 30 serves as a reminder that Garner is capable of much more. Perhaps a project with Sean Penn is in order.

“13 Going on 30” is streaming on Netflix.

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