Review: Big (Marshall, 1988)

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Companion review for Top 10 Tom Hanks Films 1984 – 1989

Big (Penny Marshall, USA, 1988)
Dir. Penny Marshall; starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton, David Moscow, Jon Lovitz, Mercedes Ruehl

Although not chiefly a body-swap movie in the traditional sense, Big has long-since been the poster child of the genre. 1976’s Freaky Friday set the idea alight with its depiction of a mother and daughter mysteriously switching bodies – the teenager having to deal with the trials and tribulations of adult life, the adult having to re-enter the rights of passage journey through school. Penny Marshall’s Big, which arrived in 1988 to practically unanimous acclaim, sees Tom Hanks wish he was an adult only to find the wish granted next day. Instead of switching bodies with another character (seen in so many great and not-so-great body-swap comedies such as Like Father Like Son, Vice Versa, and more recently 13 Going on 30, and The Hot Chick), Hanks’ twelve year old Josh Baskin loses his child’s body for a grown-up one. Hence, a moment of realisation involving body hair and the deep tones of a broken voice, and his mother, on his arrival downstairs for breakfast, throwing him out of the house at knifepoint believing him to be an intruder.

That leaves the young boy on the streets of New York – homeless and penniless. He finds his best friend Billy and eventually persuades him that he is trapped in this adult body by singing him a song they sang as children. Billy steals some money from his parents and helps Josh find an apartment in the city. Believing that the only way to change back into his own body is to find the fairground machine that granted his wish, Josh gets a data-entry job at MacMillan Toys while he waits for the machine to be tracked down. During the iconic scene on the giant keyboard where he plays chopsticks with MacMillan Toys’ owner Robert Loggia, Josh is tasked to test new toys for the company. Suddenly, he’s living the dream job of any twelve year, and moves into a huge apartment, filling it with toys, games, and a trampoline. And, with the boss singing the new employee’s praises, he soon attracts the attention of Elizabeth Perkins who wants to introduce him to the side of adulthood he has yet to explore.

Big was Tom Hanks’ most crowd-pleasing movie of the 1980s. It’s easy to see why. It’s a warm-hearted and funny movie that perfectly suited Hanks during the period. He was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, which mixes wonderfully innocent deadpan comedy with moments of memorable charm. His endearing adult persona is frequently larger-than-life without going over the top – witness the lovely scene between Hanks and Perkins when she decides to “stay over” and he insists on being “on top”. The couple’s playful mating ritual is interesting not by its complete lack of sexual contact but by the teenage boy’s adolescent ‘foreplay’: jumping on the trampoline. When they do eventually ‘do it’ there’s a brilliantly amusing moment when Perkins takes off her blouse, allowing Hanks to briefly fondle her breast before turning the light off. Immediately, Hanks turns the light back on so he can see what he’s doing.

Of course, the most iconic scene in the movie is where Hanks’ curiosity with the benefits of adult life begin – money, credit cards, power, women, sex. When his boss finds Hanks playing with the toys in the department store, Hanks lets him know exactly what he likes and dislikes about the various goods from action figures to board games. From the only perspective that really matters – a child’s – the boss is quickly enamoured with the man who seems to have a keen eye for good toys. When the two men, having walked around the store, step onto a huge electric keyboard, their friendship blossoms through a mutual appreciation of the piano and a rendition Heart and Soul followed by Chopsticks.

Elizabeth Perkins is the romantic interest of the film and she’s a likable muse to Hanks’ childish mannerisms. Her devotion to work is tempered by the overzealous Hanks, whose lack of pretension and free-spirited thinking allows her to find enjoyment in a life that was for too long constrained to, and by, the office. It’s one of the interesting conceits of the film: where does childhood fun end as we grow up, and can adults still find enjoyment in the almost trivial, and all too innocent, misadventures of children. I particularly love the scene where Hanks and Perkins are in the limousine and Billy Idol comes on the radio singing Hot In The City. Hanks opens the sunroof and arises out of it like a Playboy bunny in a huge fake cake.

Thankfully, Big never resorts to the sort of cliches that have hampered other body-swap movies. His attempts to return to childhood aren’t the focus of the story, and there’s no grandiose finale that becomes dependent on a skill he could only possess as a child in an adult’s body. That skill, seen in his ability to critique toys, is used as a plot point earlier in the film to allow his character to sample adulthood, and consequently, to examine his character rather than a narrative device designed for the ending. His transformation is also believable in a character sense: there’s an authentic and heart-wrenching moment when he finds himself in a rundown apartment in the city with gun shots being fire outside and a stranger shouting in the corridor. He curls up on the dirty, stained bed, and begins to cry.

In another touching moment, he hands Perkins a glow-in-the-dark compass ring which subtly highlights the irony of his adult persona and the good-natured naivety of the child trapped within. The scene is also a perfect example of director Penny Marshall’s control of heartfelt drama and slapstick comedy (a definite trademark of the Hanks brand during the 1980s when he seamlessly melded drama and comedy into his performances). Marshall never resorts to the melodramatic and while things sway towards the sentimental at the end, Hanks and Perkins’ chemistry maintains a truthful integrity that allows their relationship to come to an honest, satisfying conclusion. Indeed, it’s difficult not to warm to their predicament when Hanks finally reveals his secret: “I’m not what you think I am”, he says. “Before I met you I was in little league, and I rode my bike to school, and I played with my friends, and hung out with them.” Perkins replies, “What do you mean?” To which he says with complete sincerity, “I want to go home.” He pauses before adding: “I miss my family Susan, and I want to go home.”

Big is one of the quintessential teenager comedies of the 1980s. Tom Hanks is wonderful and he’s ably supported by Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, and a young Jared Rushton. The film wears its heart on its sleeve and lovingly welcomes its audience into a caring cinematic package of friendship, love, the innocence of childhood, and the nostalgic possibilities of adulthood. If ever there was a film that could warm the heart and tickle the funny bone of everyone in the family, Penny Marshall’s Big is that movie.

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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