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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Big’ at Head of the Body-Exchange Class

Times Staff Writer

Forget about those other body exchange comedies. The hands-down winner is “Big” (citywide), which manages to be funny, warm, sophisticated and above all, imaginative, from start to finish. (You would never guess it could be all those things, however, from that crass trailer theaters have been playing for months.)

It is also a personal triumph for Tom Hanks; “Nothing in Common” and now “Big” confirm his position as the screen’s premier young light comedian. Hanks recalls the amiable charm of the young Jimmy Stewart and Jack Lemmon, yet his bemused personality is as contemporary as the yuppies he plays so well.

Right away, “Big” sets itself apart from “Like Father, Like Son,” “Vice Versa” and “18 Again” in that the switch occurs not between two different people but between Josh Baskin’s nearly 13-year-old body and the one that he will possess at age 30. Writers Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg tap into what must be a virtually universal wish when little Josh (David Moscow) expresses his longing to be grown-up. What adolescent, at one time or another, doesn’t want to escape the restrictions and frustrations of being a kid?

The only difference for Josh is that his wish magically comes true when at a carnival, he drops some coins in an old-fashioned fortune-telling slot machine called Zoltar Speaks! Inside a glass cabinet--the kind that usually contains a waxen Gypsy peering into a crystal ball--there’s the Satanic-looking dummy figure of Zoltar with his fiery eyes commanding Josh to declare his wish.

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After the machine deposits a small card stating “Your wish will come true,” we’re shown that all that time, it’s been unplugged! It’s a deft way of announcing that we’ve entered the realm of Faustian fantasy, and typical of those touches to come that make “Big” so special.

With his 12-year-old mind and 30-year-old body, Josh, who lives with his parents on an inviting tree-lined street in Cliffside Park, N.J., winds up across the Hudson in the perfect place, a toy company, where his unique perspective on what kids really like is swiftly noticed by its top executive (Robert Loggia).

There’s a boyishness about Hanks that makes him perfect casting as a man with the mind of a child. That mind happens to be exceptionally bright and agile, making his survival credible, but there’s nothing that can compensate for experience. Josh realizes he has to be on his toes, yet can’t resist the joking gross-outs with food, for example. And then there’s the matter of his sexual naivete.

Indeed, “Big,” which has been directed by Penny Marshall with verve and impeccable judgment, drops a child’s innocence into the corporate rat race as if it were a depth charge. Loggia’s Mac MacMillan is a warm, shrewd, open-minded tycoon unconcerned about his newest lieutenant’s eccentricities as long as he keeps coming up with such terrific ideas. (The two do a soft-shoe routine on an outsize keyboard at F.A.O. Schwartz that’s a pure delight.) A relentless corporate ladder-climber (John Heard) naturally perceives Josh as a dire threat.

So does Elizabeth Perkins’ ambitious Susan, who unhesitatingly turns her charms on Josh as she has on so many men before him. It is she who will have the greatest impact on Josh--and vice versa. The role allows Perkins to transform Susan from a hardened office combat veteran to a beautiful, loving woman who regains her sense of values as well as her sense of fun.

“Big” captures Josh’s exuberant glee with his new life--his first paycheck, $187, seems like all the money in the world--and soon he’s exchanged a room in a Times Square flop house for a spectacular Soho loft filled with all the most fabulous toys that money can buy. The film, however, doesn’t forget the undertow of pathos in his plight--like those wistful calls home in which he has to pretend to be a kidnap victim who will be coming home “soon.”

Hanks and Perkins reveal extraordinary range, but Moscow, who must “match up” with Hanks and Jared Rushton as Josh’s best friend Billy, are heroic. Billy is the film’s linchpin, the one person who knows what has happened to Josh, who helps him make the transition into an abrupt adulthood and who acts as his conscience. Rushton is no less than remarkable in his portrayal of a normal, sturdy, intelligent boy coping ably with a totally incredible happening.

“Big” is a quality production through and through, starting with the terrific fresh look cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld brings to it, and including Judianna Makovsky’s costumes for Josh, which express precisely the stages of his evolution in taste from boy to man.

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The greatest thing about “Big” is that its makers have known how to end it in a thoroughly satisfying fashion, which is always the challenge--and often the stumbling block--of fantasy. In never confusing what is child-like with childishness, “Big” (MPAA-rated PG) is actually a refreshingly grown-up comedy--for the entire family.

‘BIG’

A 20th Century Fox presentation of a Gracie Films production. Producers James L. Brooks, Robert Greenhut. Director Penny Marshall. Writers/co-producers Gary Ross, Anne Spielberg. Camera Barry Sonnenfeld. Music Howard Shore. Production designer Santo Loquasto. Costumes Judianna Makovsky. Choreographer Patricia Birch. Film editor Barry Malkin. With Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton, David Moscow, Jon Levitz, Mercedes Ruehl, Josh Clark, Kimberlee M. Davis.

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

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MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).


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