Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for comparison. It may not keep me sane, but it will probably always involve one guy shouting, “This doesn’t make any sense!” And that’s good enough for me.

13 GOING ON 30 (2004)

13 Going on 30 is Big, but with time travel. Oh, what? Come on, you were waiting for me to say it anyway. But yes. That’s the premise. Thirteen-year-old Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) is given a creepy-as-fuck dollhouse shrine by her pathetically pining beta male best friend Matt Flamhaff (Sean Marquette), which he’s covered in “wishing dust” (never explained). When Jenna tries to get with some cute boys at a party and is humiliated by the bitchy Lucy Wyman (Alexandra Kyle), she cries in a closet and laments that she isn’t thirty yet… as some of the wishing dust falls on her head. Suddenly, she is transported to the future, where she is now age thirty and looks like Jennifer Garner (Jennifer Garner). What sort of fate lies before her?

THE STORY:
Alright, you’ve seen a romcom. Call it.

Called it.

That’s Mark Ruffalo as the adult version of Matt, who would have given his left nut to sniff Jenna’s pillowcase back in the ’80s. Jenna discovers that her and Matt are no longer friends in the future, so she tracks him down and tries to rekindle their friendship. But wait, is this– something more– than– gag. Don’t even call “spoilers,” this is the same My Best Friend the Whole Time plot we’ve seen again and again and again. Except grown-up Ruffalo has no idea how dangerously statutory he’s getting.

You put that away, mister.

Okay, so can we move on? Well, not quite. While the romantic plot has been done to death, the story isn’t a complete waste. Jenna also discovers that she works at a fashion magazine with Lucy Wyman (Judy Greer), the bitch from her party back in thirteen-year-old world, who is now her best friend. That threw me for a loop. I started thinking about how baffled I’d be if I grew up to be friends with Ricky or Derek or Wayne. Can you see me hanging out with those fuckfaces? Jesus, I’m pretty sure one of them’s in jail now. I would have to be an absolute failure in every way to– sorry, where was I?

Fashion. Something. Bitches?

Right, so Jenna is tasked with turning the magazine around, and is shocked to find out how bleak and depressing the fashion world has become with all that heroin chic shit. Naturally, her ideas of fashion are considered “retro” today, so hooray, what a bold new choice, I guess? Okay, that part kind of falls flat, too.

I suddenly relate to her character. I promise my presentation gets better.

What made me respect the story’s attempts at complexity is the fact that Jenna has no idea what sort of person she is when she’s thirty. She’s so wrapped up in the freedoms of being an adult that she ignores several signs that she might actually have turned into a rude, insufferable– uh, poopoo-head. As she bubbles her bubbly self down the hall, assistants and co-workers are cowering. She takes a while to notice it, and so did I. And it doesn’t stop at her personality; there are some later clues suggesting that Garner-Jenna might be straight-up evil.

What a horrible secret I’ve learned about myself… muahaha.

This… this feels like a fresh twist. I think this movie actually did something original with time travel, and I should damn well know. Sure, Ebenezer Scrooge sees his dickish future, but he was already a dick. And it one-ups Quantum Leap by leaving Jenna to learn about herself while keeping it secret that’s she’s traveled through time. Come on, this is good stuff. This is a screenplay that tried. And that’s not even the best part.

THE ACTING:
Jennifer Garner is amazing. Plain and simple. Even if you’re not sold on the story, she takes the material and hits it out of the park. And never in a way that says, “Look at me! I’m acting!” She just… is a thirteen-year-old girl.

Dreamin’ of Rick Springfield…

No screencap is going to do her justice. They all just look like proof that Jennifer Garner knows what a smile is. But trust me, she’s what makes the movie work, even in moments that might otherwise make you cringe. Take, for example, a scene where a boyfriend is nibbling on her ear. My viewing party (of all dudes, for the record) started shifting uncomfortably right away, because seriously, that’s awful. She’s thirteen. And then, we started laughing. Because Jennifer was laughing. Like a dork.

It’s laughter, I swear.

Jennifer is so honest that even when her character is faced with topics like sex or alcohol, topics that should be entirely uncomfortable for the audience, she reacts to them exactly like a kid would. Don’t get me wrong, it’s script magic that keeps everything from taking a dark turn, but Jennifer’s warmth and innocence is what smooths over the transition.

Mark Ruffalo is great at playing a timid guy who represses his emotions. I hope someday he lands the perfect role for that talent.

Cue the piano music.

Judy Greer and her Judy Greer sneer are perfect for this movie. She’s actually really believable as a best friend, whereas she could have just played up the bitch angle and run with that. Being a friend first allows the she-devil underneath to play it subtle, which explains how her and Jenna stayed together in the first place.

She looks three words away from “girlfriend” at all times.

I’m not very good at talking about child actors, but the casting department did a great job at matching the kids and their adult versions. I’m assuming they all spent a day together mimicking each other. Or, you know, they’re just good at acting.

THE SPECIAL EFFECTS:
The only effect in the movie is that wishing dust, which is just glitter and some CGI.

And seriously, where did that shit come from?!

OTHER STUFF:

  • There’s a special feature on the DVD called “The 80’s Outfit Challenge” hosted by Susie DeSanto, the film’s costume designer, who assures you that this will be fun. Using the DVD remote, you have to pick out the top, skirt, shoes, and accessories that Jenna and Lucy are wearing in the movie. It took us several tries.

THE “NONE OF THIS MAKES ANY SENSE!” MOMENT:
Magic + future travel = no technical details, no paradoxes. Jenna freaks out pretty consistently for the entire movie, but let’s move on.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Expectation can be a pretty big part of enjoying a movie, and the cover of 13 Going on 30 looks like you’re in for the most terrible first date ever, but once it gets going, Jennifer Garner steals the show. Her performance goes a long way in keeping the movie fun, and then the script reveals a twist or two to fully engage you. Your brain will activate auto-pilot whenever the script returns to the modern romantic comedy format, but if that’s your cup of sap, then hopefully you’ll also enjoy the attempt at a more complex story. In the romcom canon, it should be placed towards the top. As a time travel film, it’s a solid middle, but that’s damned impressive considering I pegged it for dead last.

NEXT WEEK:
Zemeckis! Back to the Future Part II (1989), Back to the Future Part III (1990), A Christmas Carol (2009)

Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.