Sunday, September 29, 2013

Big - The best Tom Hanks role from the 80s

Big (1988)
Comedy, Drama, Fantasy, 130 minutes (extended version)
Directed by Penny Marshall
Starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia and Jared Rushton

I've been a fan of Tom Hanks ever since I saw Big, and I would say that it's the first Hanks performance that really made me aware that he could be more than someone who would only be remembered as a briefly popular comedic actor. Big is a comedy, but it contains plenty of scenes which rely on drama. It makes some good observations about childhood, friendship, relationships, and life itself.

Josh Baskin is 12, and has a crush on someone at school. Unfortunately, he has no chance because her boyfriend can drive. After a failed attempt to sit next to her on a fairground ride, Josh makes a wish on a Zoltar machine; he wants to be big. A card informs him that his wish has been granted, and he wakes up the next morning as an adult. While that sounds like utter nonsense, it provides an opportunity to show how a child in a man's body might interact with the world.

We see Josh convince his friend, Billy (Rushton), that he really is who he says he is. The two form a plan to track down a Zoltar machine so that Josh can wish to return to normal. While the pair wait for the information to arrive, Josh has to support himself. He likes computer games and manages to talk his way into working as a data processor at a toy company. I guess finding a job was easier in 1988 than it is today?

The genius of the movie is in showing us how simple life can be when you're a child. Most adults become jaded when they realize the reality of working, the daily routine, and the struggle to pay for all the little luxuries that they covet. Josh attacks the world with the exuberance of a child. He does everything quickly and to the best of his ability, and his enthusiastic approach draws the attention of the Mr. MacMillan (Loggia), who owns the company.

Josh is promoted fast, and is soon vice president of development. His apparent luck causes resentment among some of the employees, but Susan (Perkins) finds his approach attractive. The two enter into a relationship, but we can see that Josh doesn't have any idea how to behave around a woman who isn't his mother. Once again, his honest approach pays dividends, and Susan perceives his attitude as a refreshing change from the manipulative partner she last dated. In fact, his childish notions help unlock the child inside her, and she likes the feelings it evokes in her.

The movie is definitely a feel-good piece, but it's more than just fluff. If you think about some of the messages, it's telling us just to take things at face value and enjoy life. Josh succeeds because he has no ulterior motives. We are regularly reminded about the importance of friendship, and how events in our lives can sometimes threaten our relationships with established friends when we find something or someone new that we think deserves our full attention. Of course, a good friend will forgive you for such indulgences.

There have been so many movies about identity switches, and quite a few of them were made in the 80s. Big is better than all of the others because after the initial fantasy element, it contains a lot of incisive observations about human behavior. The casting elevates the movie to yet another level, and it's one I return to every couple of years.

The story was written by Gary Ross, who had a hand in the writing of Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, and The Hunger Games. This is easily his best early effort and it deserves your time. The Blu-ray includes an extended cut, which adds 26 minutes to the movie, and it's my preferred version.

Overall score 4.5/5

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  1. Love this movie, one of my favorites to rewatch from the 80s. Agree Tom Hanks gives a terrific performance, the way he attacks the world with the exuberance of a child is indeed fun (and thought-provoking).
    You know what? I didn't even know an extended version is available, I don't now if that is what I have seen already, interesting you prefer that cut.

    1. None of the additional scenes feel superfluous, and they fit seamlessly. I like staying in that world an extra 26 minutes. I wish there was a 2-hour cut of Juno.

  2. Great review, Steve! A great movie with a terrific performance by Hanks.

    1. Thanks Fernando, I always enjoy Big. Hard to go wrong with Hanks until a few years ago.