BIG (1988)

  • Director: Penny Marshall
  • Writers: Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg
  • Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, David Moscow, Jared Rushton, Jon Lovitz, Mercedes Ruehl, and Debra Jo Rupp
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 films directed by women (#80), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Actor – Tom Hanks, Best Original Screenplay)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

There was this weird run of 1980s comedies of which Big is probably the one that has stood the test of time the best, mostly, I would argue, because of (a) it generally taking its central premise seriously, even if it mines it for comedy, and (b) the central performance of Tom Hanks. I know Hollywood has this tendency to make different versions of the same basic premise at similar times (remember when two different versions of a live action Snow White came out in like the same month, or that time The Truman Show and EdTV came out at almost the same time?). However, I do think it’s interesting that there was something in the zeitgeist just then. My theory is that the Baby Boomers had all grown up and were making movies, and in the contrast between how they had been as kids and how they ended up as adults (a contrast I would argue was probably bigger than subsequent generations) lay possible comedy. Anyway, Big, Like Father Like Son, 18 Again!, Vice Versa, and 14 Going on 30 all have some version of the basic premise of either an adult in a kid’s body or a kid in an adult’s body, or both, and all came out within two years of each other.

Big derives its primary appeal from Hanks’ performance, in which he successfully embodies a little kid in an adult’s body. Josh Baskin (played as a kid by David Moscow, as an adult by Hanks) is a 13-year-old boy who, after a couple of small setbacks, makes a wish to a weird psychic machine at a carnival to be “big,” then wakes up as a 30-year-old man. After his mother (Mercedes Ruehl) assumes Josh is an intruder who kidnapped her son, he is forced to flee to New York City. He ends up getting a job at a toy company, initially as a “computer operator” (in 1988 this was a separate job I guess). He is then promoted to developing toys after the company CEO (Robert Loggia) sees him in a toy store and realizes that this guy knows exactly what toys kids want (not realizing it’s because he is a kid himself). The toy store scene is the most famous in the movie, as it includes Hanks and Loggia dancing on a large floor piano.

All these bits mostly work, but I am more skeptical of the romantic plot that essentially takes over the movie around the halfway mark. A fellow toy executive named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) falls for Josh, and the two of them end up in a relationship. And when I say “relationship,” I mean full on having sex. The movie never seems to stop to consider how weird/creepy this is. Honestly this movie is way hornier than pretty much all modern blockbusters, which is particularly strange because it is a PG kids’ movie (it also drops at least one F-bomb, which makes the rating even more questionable given that PG-13 was already a thing at this point). Anyway, Josh eventually finds the carnival machine again, and Susan figures out that he really is just a kid. Somewhat bizarrely, her reaction to finding out she’s been banging a 13-year-old is basically “oh, I’ll miss you.” She also tells him  to keep her number and call her in ten years. So yeah, it’s pretty weird. Again, my issue with all of this is less that it happens and more that the movie seems to be entirely oblivious to the implications of its own story.

But these are mostly quibbles, and there’s no question Big is highly entertaining. That’s why it was a big hit in 1988, becoming, by a pretty wide margin, the highest grossing movie at the American box office to be directed by a woman up to that time. Director Penny Marshall’s instincts probably guided the movie in the right direction away from being a very dumb comedy, as many of its contemporary body-switching, etc., movies were. Hanks had been something of a star before this, but Big took his career to the next level. For one thing, he received his first Oscar nomination for his performance. Hanks would be directed again by Marshall a few years later in A League of Their Own, another movie that I think benefited from Marshall’s sensibility of making a comedy that still takes its characters seriously. Hanks was not the first, or the fifth choice to play the role, which seems strange in retrospect. At one point Robert De Niro was attached to star, which feels completely insane. 

Big is not a movie that I think requires a lot of analysis, both because its charms are fairly clear on its face and because I don’t think it really bears close scrutiny. Not just because of the romantic plot, but because of the way a lot of things in the movie don’t really work if you think about them too hard. Josh gets hired at the toy company despite giving them a made up social security number that doesn’t have enough digits. He confides in his friend (Jared Rushton), who somehow keeps coming down into the city to help him, mentioning once that he told his parents he was on the basketball team (despite, we see in one scene, being clearly terrible at basketball). Subplots seem to be dropped at the movie’s whim. Jon Lovitz, for example, is in like two scenes, and is great as usual, but his character has no reason to be in the movie. Yet I mention these things more to comment that the movie works in spite of them, because it is not the sort of movie where things like that actually matter. Overall I would say Big still works today, as it did in 1988.

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