Bringing Out The Child In Tom Hanks

Posted: June 03, 1988

Moviegoers who have been paying attention during the last year have every right to feel ready to belittle Tom Hanks' new comedy and wearily demand, ''What's the Big idea?"

After all, Big is the fourth installment of the invasion-of-the-body- switchers movies. It has been preceded by Dudley Moore's woeful Like Father, Like Son and two amiable pleasantries - George Burns' 18 Again! and Judge Reinhold's Vice Versa. Apart from Hanks' reputation as a comic actor who can liven up even junk as irretrievable as Bachelor Party, there seemed no reason to harbor great expectations for Big - in which a 13-year-old kid suddenly finds a rash wish fulfilled and winds up in the body of a 30-year- old.

But bigger is better. A whole lot better. You can cite Hanks' special flair for milking the last ounce of silliness from an outlandish predicament - a gift shown so well in 1984, when he fell in love with a mermaid in Splash and made the world care.

And substantial praise goes to the screenplay by Anne Spielberg (Steven's sister) and Gary Ross, which adroitly sidesteps the minefield of perils and pitfalls this sort of comedy presents. But I rather suspect that the real difference is that Big - unlike the earlier stabs at man-child fantasies - was directed by a woman.

Penny Marshall brings a logic to the premise that is sustained through most of the movie. And where the other movies snickered at the sexual possibilities in the idea, she faces up to them with both candor and taste. After a disconsolate boy makes his wish at a tacky arcade attraction at a carnival, Big makes sense on its own terms and only falters at its resolution. Where the other comedies split their time between two situations - the adult's and the kid's - and turn a two-way street into a dead-end, Big has the virtue of simplicity and the appeal of an almost universal childhood fantasy.

There is an exactitude to the way the movie depicts the myriad anxieties of being puberty-stricken and the burning curiosity about what life is really like in the grown-up world.

Young Josh Baskin can see only the advantages, and once his fondest desire is realized (mercifully, without the specious special effects), Big easily could have settled for silliness. Instead, Marshall and her writers shrewdly guide the plot into an amusing collision between an innocent and the sophisticates, and create a touching love story that has some of the impossible grace of Splash.

Big has a lot of fun with the inarguable contention that most men never really get past adolescence. Josh first holes up in a grungy Times Square hotel and confronts the fact that he has to find a job. In his actual boyhood, he was a video and computer whiz, so he applies at a toy company where the piranha executives try to gobble one another up in a game of corporate Pac- Man.

Naturally, his intuitive understanding of what kids really want to buy propels him to the top, under the benign sponsorship of the boss (Robert Loggia). And his natural bodily instincts put him in the path of the smashing Elizabeth Perkins, a co-worker and a veteran of too many affairs with men who turned out to be children.

Marshall, whose other major directing credit was the crude Whoopi Goldberg vehicle Jumpin' Jack Flash, proves remarkably sensitive to the gossamer delicacy of this fantasy. In Hanks, she is lucky enough to have an actor who disdains the cheap and easy laugh and who gives the film the illusion of credibility with his perfect riff on a kid in a situation that is at once promising and threatening.

It's a piece of virtuosity that belies the extraordinary difficulty of the role, and almost every scene in Big offers an actor who has thought through the little things. Given the history of this minor man-child genre, Big is an instance that happily bears out an aphorism. If at first you don't succeed, try again. You might well end up with something as engaging as Marshall's movie.

BIG * * *

Produced by Robert Greenhut and James L. Brooks; directed by Penny Marshall; written by Anne Spielberg and Gary Ross; photography by Barry Sonnefield; music by Howard Shore; distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.

Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.

Josh Baskin - Tom Hanks

Susan Lawrence - Elizabeth Perkins

Mac - Robert Loggia

Paul Davenport - John Heard

Parent's guide: PG (nothing offensive).

Showing at: area theaters.

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