Bucket List Movie #441: Big (1988)
I know, it was laughable enough that it took me 15 years to see The Matrix, but 26 years to see Big? That’s just unacceptable. If you’re laughing at me, I can’t say I blame you. Well, to be fair, I actually watched it in class when I was about 8 years old, but at that age, I only liked animated movies, and if a live-action film wasn’t The Wizard of Oz, then damned if I was going to pay attention to it.
Big is actually more significant then we realize, and it’s not because of the legendary FAO Schwartz piano scene. It is the first film directed by a woman, Penny Marshall, to gross more than $100 million. That is fantastic, though it will never answer the question of why there aren’t more female film directors. Heaven knows Kathryn Bigelow can’t do everything herself. It also earned Tom Hanks his first of many Best Actor Academy Award nominations. As I watched Big, it made me realize that Hanks must have the most divinely dissatisfying career of anyone in Hollywood. Not that it’s bad, mind you; on the contrary, it’s downright enviable. But think of all the different boxes Hanks has found himself in throughout the years: he was the goofy young star of a sitcom that seemed tailor-made to fail (Bosom Buddies), a tamer heir to John Belushi (Bachelor Party), the beleaguered straight man in outlandish comedies (Splash, The ‘Burbs, Turner and Hooch) and then the Serious Actor Destined to be the Next James Stewart he was from the ‘90s ‘til now.
Oh, and Woody the Cowboy, let's not forget that.
Poor Tom Hanks can never just be Tom Hanks, he’s simultaneously lauded and pigeonholed. Still, it is undeniable that Big officially cemented Hanks as a bankable leading man, his quirky, boyish looks no longer a liability. In fact, they are put to perfect use in a role that was offered to everyone from Albert Brooks, Dennis Quaid, and Robert DeNiro (no, really).
Tiresome Trivia of the Day: As if the idea of DeNiro starring in Big wasn't surreal enough, according to IMDb, Gary Busey auditioned for the role of Josh. Gary flippin' Busey. Imagine how Big would have turned out then. No, really, imagine it, it'll make you dizzy.
We are introduced to our protagonist, 12-year-old Josh Baskin (played as a kid by David Moscow who, if I’m to be honest, looks more like a young Harvey Fierstein than Tom Hanks). Josh is an ordinary boy who loves baseball, cracking jokes with his friend Billy (Jared Rushton), and surviving the highs and lows of puberty. Life is idyllic, but after being embarrassed in front of his crush at the amusement park for being too short to go on a ride, Josh wanders off and stumbles upon Zoltar Speaks, an utterly terrifying machine featuring a turban-clad automaton with glowing red eyes. Josh drops in a quarter, and wishes to be “big”. Not older, cooler, more popular, just... big. It's understandable, since at that age, a single mortifying moment feels like the end of the world, and you’re liable to say or do anything. It's difficult to say what should worry Josh more, being careful of wishes, or that Zoltar works despite not being plugged in.
Sure enough, the next morning, Josh has transformed into a 30-year-old man, and here we have one of the most offbeat star-making moments ever. Tom Hanks boldly parades around in tighty-whities while miraculously conveying his inner 12-year-old’s panic at this terrifying situation. He bangs into things, struggles to put on his now too-small jeans, and tries to adjust to this foreign body. After being mistaken for a burglar and driven out of the house by his mother, Josh’s only hope is Billy, who, like most movie kids, has remarkable street smarts. Josh sets up house in a fleabag hotel while he and Billy try to track down the Zoltar machine. In order to survive, Josh bluffs his way into a data entry job at a major toy company (he's actually pretty good at it, to the point where fellow cubicle drone Jon Lovitz criticizes him for being too efficient). Josh wins over the company's owner, MacMillan (Robert Loggia) with his innocence and native intelligence of what makes toys both good and popular. MacMillan sees the childlike Josh as an eccentric genius, and gives him a job as a toy tester (Big seems to have a hidden moral that adults can indeed find jobs they love and are good at). The job must be insanely lucrative, for Josh is able to get a loft apartment and fill it with a vending machine, pinball machine, bunk bed, and trampoline. Is it wrong that I’m a grown woman who wishes she had an apartment like that? But Josh eventually becomes too used to adulthood and, like a good creative writing student, Marshall shows Josh's progression as he actually starts wearing suits, drinking coffee, and focusing on the business side of business. It's a great marriage of narrative and acting. Josh is soon forced to choose between his real childhood or his false adulthood, and must decide what's worth keeping and what's worth leaving behind.
I'll be honest, Big is a fine film, but it has flaws, and the most noticeable to me is the romantic subplot. Josh's attractive colleague Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) falls for his clear-eyed honesty and genuine sweetness, and Josh is stunned to learn that he has feelings for her, too. At first, it's sort of sweet, almost like an Ernst Lubitsch or Frank Capra comedy, in that Susan learns to loosen up and let go of the neuroses that the 80s dictate she must have. But then the film falters when things get serious. Sure, they look cute together, and they have decent chemistry, but… Josh is a 13-year-old in a 30-year-old man's body! Yes, Susan doesn't know that, and she's certainly not the villain here, but it still feels squicky. Their relationship goes no further than kisses (though a scene that feels like a "did they, didn't they" tease had me squirming), but I couldn't help but cringe. Also, when Susan learns the truth about Josh, she is remarkably okay with it. She doesn't feel humiliated, or like she's committed a crime. Hell, she doesn't even marvel at the fact that magical forces do exist in the universe. Is this a world where magical forces are an established part of reality? The movie never says. When Josh and Susan part in the end, we just have to take it in good faith that she and Josh will both be okay, no psychological bruises of any kind. If I were Josh, I don't know how I'd handle adolescence after having a taste of adulthood, and I know that Susan's psychologist is going to have a field day.
I was tempted to complain about how the Zoltar machine isn't more popular given that, you know, it's a magical device that legitimately grants wishes, but then I decided it's like the tollbooth in The Phantom Tollbooth or the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in that it only appears to those most worthy (or some such thing). I also was amazed at how 1988 really was a more innocent time, in that Josh's early scenes, in which he's mistaken for a child predator (more than once), are played strictly for laughs. Jokes like that nowadays simply would not fly. I will say it's refreshing how the movie never forgets about Josh's poor mother, and we occasionally get scenes with her fretting about what happened to her son. As someone who saw her share of crappy kids' movies growing up, where parents were these ineffectual nonentities we weren't supposed to care about, Penny Marshall addresses the issue of a missing child and the worried mother with sensitivity.
I'm not the first person to complain about how comedic performances are too often overlooked at Oscar time, and I know I won't be the last, but don't you still find it odd? I bear no news when I say that comedy is significantly harder than drama. Truly great comedy has a nuance to it, it's an art, and not everyone can master it. For instance, Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz can play gorgeous women who fall down a lot until the end of time, but they'll never do it with the velvety finesse of Carol Lombard. Yet comedy remains a frequently unappreciated genre. I'm aware there aren't as many great comedies these days, but when there are, the Academy still turns up its collective nose. Why is that? Why couldn’t Renee Zellweger have won for Bridget Jones’s Diary instead of Cold Mountain? Why couldn’t Dustin Hoffman have won for Tootsie as well as Rain Man?
Tiresome Gripe of the Day: I know that Jennifer Lawrence won for Silver Linings Playbook, but I stubbornly maintain it was a consolation Oscar for not winning for Winter's Bone.
Tom Hanks was of course phenomenal in his back-to-back Oscar winning performances in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump, but neither can hold a candle to his sublime, uninhibited, emotional performance in Big. It's hard for an adult to really play a kid; after all, it's been awhile, and we don't all remember exactly how it was. Hanks watched videos of Moscow acting out his scenes, then behaved accordingly, and the result is just unforgettable. Whether it's goofing around with Billy and silly string, attempting to eat baby corn like regular corn at a formal party, skateboarding around his apartment, or innocently responding to Susan's invitation to spend the night with, "OK, but I get to be on top!", Hanks is consistently persuasive and fearless as the touchingly naïve Josh. We feel his fears and joy as he navigates the adult world, all the while hoping he'll go back home where he belongs. These days, every other comedy seems to feature men who act like children. But it takes an artist like Hanks to play an honest-to-God child in a man's body. The very fact that Josh even has to choose between two worlds makes him more adult than all the Adam Sandlers, Will Ferrells, and Vince Vaughns combined.