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It’s tough to overstate how good Tom Hanks is in this movie, and also how important it was in his career arc. Take a look at all of his previous roles and pretty much any good actor could have played them; maybe not as well, but they could have. But the role of Josh Haskin, a 13 year-old in 30 year-old’s body, was tailor-made for the megawatt boyish charm and talent of late 80s Tom Hanks. You never doubt that Hanks is a boy in a grown up body, flicking through a hundred different emotions; it’s a funny performance, and a nuanced one, too. For the first time, Hanks isn’t just a young hotshot but an obvious generational talent.
The movie’s story works mainly as a delightful fantasy yarn: It’s endlessly amusing to see a confused kid engaging with the adult world. The misunderstandings, childlike enthusiasm, and disdain for grown-up shit is mined for every possible bit of amusement. It does cross over into some ooky territory: When Josh strikes up a romance with a coworker that eventually turns sexual, the movie practically begs you to start teasing out the ethical conundrum, to the film’s disadvantage.
On the other hand, there’s another layer to Big that makes the premise, even the romance, work double-duty: This is a clever satire of coming of age in the cutthroat, fast-paced ’80s. Josh, literally 13 on the inside, is a stand-in for every young adult who feels maladjusted in a demanding world.
When Josh starts embracing and choosing “adult” totems — money, sex, love, professional prestige, reputation — ahead of his best friend and their pointless adolescent fun, he rushes his maturation because the world requires him to. Staying young-at-heart is an act of defiance and bravery. That’s what makes the ending powerful, not just the heartfelt reunion with his bud and return to the status quo.
Big is directed by the late Penny Marshall, who gives the film a light, inviting, sentimental touch. Along with A League of Their Own, it’s one of two times she’d pair with Hanks, and both times they created magic.
The film could have plumbed that satirical vein, but it isn’t interested in shaking its atmosphere of light fantasy comedy. Big, thus, always feels a bit disposable, even if there’s some depth under that levity. And none of the cast comes close to enriching the material the way Hanks does, though nobody is particularly bad, either.
Big is a film that, at moments, is nearly as thoughtful as it is fun, and when Hanks is this good — one of the best comic performances of the ’80s — it’s a pleasure to watch.