(Originally published in Rocky Mountain Bullhorn)
Consider 13 Going on 30 as less a movie than a demo reel for Jennifer Garner, the energetic brunette beauty of TV’s Alias. In Gary Winick’s photocopy of Big and (to a lesser extent) Freaky Friday, Garner is Jenna Rink, a thirteen-year-old girl in 1987 suburban New Jersey who, through a birthday wish enhanced by some sparkly magic dust, miraculously leaves behind her unpleasant adolescence for a perfect adult life of fortune, fame, and fashion journalism at her favorite teen woman’s magazine, “Poise.” Trapped inside a mature, frequently skimpily clothed body, Jenna goes on shopping sprees and drinks piña coladas, but all’s not right in this fantasy world – as the teenage Jenna soon realizes, her 30-year-old self has accomplished her professional goals through greedy, spiteful backstabbing. What’s a young girl to do when she finds out she’s got everything she’s ever wanted except happiness? Put on some garish eye makeup, cue those ‘80s MTV hits and – gag me with a spoon – teach everyone that materialism isn’t nearly as important as family, friends, and true love.
Mr. Winick’s film, however, doesn’t really believe its own Pop Rocks-flavored platitudes. Despite its vilification of Jenna’s cutthroat best friend Lucy (a frighteningly gaunt Judy Greer) and surface condemnation of “Poise” magazine’s objectification of women, this morality tale hypocritically smears the very mascara it wears. From its candy-colored palette to its retro soundtrack of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” this wafer-thin trifle is the cinematic equivalent of the teen women’s magazines it supposedly wants to criticize for selling phony concepts of femininity. That Jenna will rebel against the shallow publishing business and eventually fall for the nerdy high school best friend (Mark Ruffalo) she shunned years earlier is pre-ordained from the film’s opening birthday party scene. But since our heroine’s triumphant high school yearbook-themed editorial makeover incorporates just as many suspect (if not downright dishonest) representations of ideal female teen-hood as Lucy’s competing ultra-heroin chic concept, it’s hard not to notice how this fairy tale fails to address – or willfully ignores – the ethical shortcomings of its glitzy journalistic milieu.
Even if the film’s moral compass seems terribly off-kilter, Garner is charming as the flummoxed Jenna, channeling her inner thirteen-year-old by awkwardly stumbling around her new apartment and squeamishly recoiling from her hockey player boyfriend’s “thingy.” Garner’s unreasonable goofiness occasionally makes Jenna seem six instead of thirteen, but the actress’ smile is infectious, and her buoyant presence is a relief given the supporting cast’s robotic performances (except for Andy Serkis, a.k.a. Gollum, as Jenna’s stressed-out boss). But like the impromptu dance routines that pepper 13 Going on 30’s unexceptional screenplay (by Cathy Yuspa, Josh Goldsmith, and Niels Mueller), this frivolous romance feels totally too choreographed.