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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
June 03, 1988


Penny Marshall
Tom Hanks;
Elizabeth Perkins;
Robert Loggia;
John Heard;
Jared Rushton;
David Moscow
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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There's an old saw that says, "Be careful what you wish for -- it might come true." And it's on this point that "Big," the disarming new comedy starring Tom Hanks, turns.

Josh Baskin (David Moscow), a suburban kid who plays Little League and is just starting to discover girls, dreams of leaving childhood behind. He's at the age where all the girls in his class are about a foot taller than he is and looking for older, more mature boys. Bigger boys. For a shrimpy kid of 12, life is full of mortifying incidents, such as the one at an amusement park ride where, right in front of the statuesque blond he wants most to impress, he's refused admission for being too short. Dejected, he runs across an old-fashioned fortune-telling machine, drops a quarter into the slot and tells the genie inside, "I wish I was big."

The next morning when Josh hops out of bed, the thud he makes as his feet hit the ground is a lot louder than usual, and the face in the mirror (which belongs to Tom Hanks) is not one he recognizes. Forced to leave home because, quite naturally, his mother doesn't believe his story (she thinks he's a burglar), Josh heads for New York City with his best friend Billy (Jared Rushton), who installs him in a Times Square flophouse.

The film was directed by Penny Marshall (formerly Laverne of "Laverne and Shirley"), and she gives these early scenes an assured comic rhythm. In the early carnival sequences, Marshall creates a boy's-world atmosphere of dazzling wonder.

As good as these early scenes are, though, the movie doesn't really take off until Josh takes a job as a computer specialist at MacMillan Toys. (Computers and toys are the only things Josh knows about, so the post is ideal.) And it's at this point that Hanks' performance takes off, too. Hanks is just boyish enough (and just goofy-looking enough) to be the ideal actor for this role. And he shows us what a generous, likable performer he can be when he's not saddled with playing glib '80s slicksters.

A lot of the comedy in these scenes is based on Josh's ignorance of the coded social language of adults. And Hanks makes Josh's tentative bluffing seem like high-wire improvisation. When, for example, one of his computer associates ("Saturday Night Live's" Jon Lovitz) tells him that a sexy coworker "will wrap her legs around you until you beg for mercy," Josh replies innocently, "Well, I'll be sure to stay away from her."

The screen writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg (sister of Steven) have built several layers of fantasy into their script, and on one level the movie is a realization of every boy's wish to get away from his parents and do whatever he pleases (and have the money to do it, too). And so Josh subsists mainly on sodas and the insides of Oreo cookies and fills his downtown loft with every game and toy imaginable.

The movie reaches its height of inventiveness in a scene at FAO Schwarz, Boy Heaven, when Josh runs into his boss, Mac (Robert Loggia), and together Loggia and Hanks, the suave old smoothie and his game younger partner, dance a duet on a giant electronic piano keyboard on the floor of the toy store's main showroom. And the pairing is an inspired one; they make a marvelous, father-and-son-like team.

It's at moments like this one that the movie achieves the zip and exuberance of a classic romantic comedy. The film's high spirits are infectious, especially when we see Josh in his office playing with his toys (that's his job basically), or after he's brought Susan (Elizabeth Perkins), an attractive and ambitious coworker, back to his apartment and he entertains her by bouncing with her on a trampoline.

Perkins isn't as much fun here as she was in "About Last Night . . ." But still, she's a wonderful foil for Hanks. The romance between Josh and Susan adds another dimension, and for women who've felt that they were in relationships with men whose emotional development hovered somewhere around the 12-year-old level, what Susan has to put up with will no doubt seem familiar. And the filmmakers run some neat riffs on these lovers' clichés, as when the two are working overtime on a presentation and Susan, who's fallen hard for Josh, asks him just where he thinks their relationship is going and he defuses the situation by bopping her with a rolled-up magazine. Hanks' work here is astoundingly deft and light-fingered. His performance has an endearing, lost-innocent quality (you can easily see why Susan becomes infatuated with him) and, without indulging himself, he never lets us lose sight of the fact that we're watching a kid. And Santo Loquasto's production design, together with Barry Sonnenfeld's camera work, pull you into Josh's vibrantly colored, toyland universe; they make you feel as if you're up to your eyes in Froot Loops.

"Big" has a warmhearted sweetness that's invigorating; it makes you want to break out the Legos. It's only near the end of the film, when Hanks has to play the scenes for pathos, that the movie becomes cloying.

Still, the tone never becomes moralistic. It would have been easy for the screen writers to score points against their grown-up characters by portraying them as soulless monsters who've lost contact with the kid inside them. (The film's message, simply put, is, "Hold on to that kid.") But the movie resists the temptation to turn Josh's fantasy into a nightmare. What's great about it is that it shows how wonderfully full of toys the world of adults can be. And though this may fall under the heading of tiny, perhaps even fatuous, revelations, it does send you out of the theater with a lighter step.

"Big" contains some inoffensive adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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