Big (1988)

Dir. Penny Marshall. Starring Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Jared Rushton

Over the course of a year, three separate comedies put women at the upper echelons of late ’80s business and simultaneously ensnared them in love triangles. The world of business and work entwine each other until there is no clear separation between the profitable and the personal. In the end, what we learn is that our girl will choose business over pleasure, but that the man she ends up leaving behind her helped her see a better way to do business. Broadcast News, released in 1987, is the best of the three by a wide margin. It places national news producer Jane Craig under the gun almost immediately; although she lives by the same high idealistic standards that govern her beliefs about journalism, she can see that TV news has become fun rather than useful. And in her personal life, she chooses fun, in the form of handsome and brainless anchor Tom Grunick, over standards, personified by the brilliant, grating, and significantly less handsome Aaron Altman. In the end, Jane ascends the corporate ladder while the news organization crumbles around her. Her standards make it impossible to stay with Tom, and Aaron’s cruelty in defeat show us something of the man he always was. Working Girl makes the choice far simpler for Tess McGill than it was for Jane Craig: there’s Staten Island moron and longtime steady Mick Dugan on one hand and Manhattan executive Jack Trainer on the other. There’s also a new complication; cutthroat career woman Katharine Parker not only has her claws in Jack, but is Tess’ boss. Eventually everyone gets what they deserve, and Tess, on her way up the corporate ladder, has a chance to do the right thing by her new subordinate. The dirty tricks that people like Mick and Katharine use to get ahead turn out to be inferior to the basically honest approach of someone like Jack.

And then there’s Big, which is not really about its corporate woman at all, but which uses most of the same strategies as its companion movies to show what it’s like to be a woman in big business in a big city. Susan Lawrence (Perkins), who has learned from Jane Craig and Katharine Parker how important it is to have a whitebread first name followed by a guy’s first name for a surname, has dated her way through the office at MacMillan Toys. Her latest model is an arrogant up-and-comer, Paul Davenport (John Heard), whose adulthood has so totally consumed him that he’s unable to remember what it’s like to be a kid or, more importantly, what a kid wants. His great contribution to the company is a Transformer knock-off which turns a skyscraper into a robot. (“What’s fun about a building?” Josh asks, only to one-up the idea by suggesting the robot should turn into a bug.) At every turn he belittles Susan, who has an overwhelming commitment to business. Of the three women from these movies, Susan is the most regressively painted. No one ever implies that Jane or Tess are nuts about their jobs because it’s an escape from their unsatisfying personal lives, but Big quite clearly evinces those qualities in Susan. At a company party, she is the only one talking about work. Have a drink, MacMillan (Robert Loggia) tells her. Have more than one drink. Only when she starts dating Josh (Hanks) does the film start to sand down her edges, and even then the thorns pop out of the stem at slight provocations. Like Jane and Tess, she must walk away without a man, but like both she’s learned a great deal about her business from the man she’s let go of. Where Jane sees the encroaching seediness of tabloid journalism in Tom, and Tess learns the value of speaking up from her experiences with Jack, Susan doubtless returns to MacMillan with a new lease on how to sell toys that kids want to play with. This is obviously an inferior lesson to have learned, and it’s part of the reason Big feels a little feeble in this comparative setting. The real lesson, I guess, was not to date a thirteen-year-old trapped in a man’s body, and let’s face it, ain’t no coming back from that.

The real victim of Big is Josh’s mother (Mercedes Ruehl), who spends the vast majority of the movie wondering who has kidnapped her son and what will happen to him. (When Rushton’s Billy realizes that the perks of Josh’s frankly incredible adulthood have hypnotized his buddy, it’s remarkable to me that he doesn’t ever drop a line to the effect of “Your mom thinks you’ve been kidnapped and probably killed, and every second you spend in this body when you could return home to her is just horrific cruelty.”) But certainly one must feel for Susan, who is taken for a ride again by a coworker. Josh may be a kid, but those foolish, straightforward characteristics are, in an adult’s body, a sort of carpe diem zen. Everyone else wears a tuxedo to the company party; Josh wears a magnificent white tuxedo he might have janked from a mid-century French circus. Other men keep fancy booze in their apartments; Josh has a soda machine you don’t even need quarters to work. Thus the immortal line, “He’s a grown-up.” It’s impossible to blame Susan, but that doesn’t mean we need to set down our horror. What’s most disconcerting about Big is that it builds to that relationship. After working his way through the relative wilderness of being a kid and an adult, someone who needs to get a job but who doesn’t have a blessed idea what his Social Security number is, Josh becomes an executive and a lover. Sex with Susan, and a relatively stable relationship, I guess, are the signs that Josh has made it to adulthood. They’re also the signs that Josh is actively giving up his childhood, the bait that he needs to be thirty instead of just acting it.

The movie leads us off with actual Josh (David Moscow), still prepubescent, staring down Zoltar and wishing to be big. It gives us the comedy of Josh’s realization that he has turned into Tom Hanks and the even more glorious epiphany Billy and Josh have when they figure out that they can use Josh’s adult presence to fool around with a much bigger budget. It also finds the pathos of what it’s like to leave a child alone in a frightening New York motel, and, to some extent, the horror Josh’s mother is experiencing. The movie is sure our sympathies lie with Josh, and so it primarily plays that scene where Josh calls his mom to let her know he’s all right for laughs. Knowing he can’t come to the phone as her boy, he asks her to ask him something only Josh would know. When she asks him what song she used to sing him when he was little, he can’t remember right away. “Isn’t there anything else you’d like to ask him?” he says, and the line is meant to be funny even though the situation isn’t. Even the choice of the song, “The Way We Were,” is at least accidentally hilarious. In scenes like the one where Hanks and Rushton spray each other with Silly String and the scene where Josh calls home, Hanks is playing the same character, and the movie is sure that we should laugh much the same way. I’m not sure it’s possible, not if we take the movie’s premise with even an ounce of seriousness.

It’s certainly one of Hanks’ more endearing roles. Read enough reviews of the movie and you see the word “sweet” pop up an alarming number of times. (I swear people in the ’80s just didn’t know what was happening half the time.) The primary reason why must be Tom Hanks, who is America’s ditzy best friend in this movie as opposed to its dad. When he tears into that song that he and Billy sing with one another, or when he insists on bouncing on a trampoline with Elizabeth Perkins, or when he fools around with a person-sized Godzilla in his massive corner apartment, one just lights up a little bit. He’s funny and doofy and deeply endearing, a combination that allows us to pretend this movie isn’t a little too weird.

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