Midway through the ingratiating comedy "13 Going On 30," I wondered what would have happened if one of the naughty girls from last year's indie release "Thirteen" had time traveled into the future. For one thing, unlike the new film's preternaturally innocent teenager, Jenna Rink -- played first by newcomer Christa Allen, then Jennifer Garner -- the Lolitas from "Thirteen" wouldn't shriek at the sight of a naked man. Probably they would make like Britney and only later say "Oops."
Another iteration on the apparently indestructible body-switching premise, "13 Going On 30" closely adheres to the essential gimmick and learning curve introduced to superior effect in the 1988 hit "Big." After a disastrous birthday party and a foolish wish to become "30, flirty and thriving" (some alliterative propaganda she's read in a fashion magazine), Jenna wakes one morning to discover that she's metamorphosed into an older, taller, somewhat curvier version of herself. Now played by Garner, the wild-eyed teenager comes face to face with a wish fulfillment of a life that comes with a designer Manhattan apartment, an executive position at a slick women's magazine, a hockey-star boyfriend who likes to strip to Vanilla Ice, and row upon row of designer shoes.
After a modest freak-out, Jenna slips into her dream life as easily as she slips on a pair of high heels. It's an unpersuasive fit on each count -- she hits the cement without a wobble and takes to the soul-destroying world of fashion magazine publishing with the serenity of a Buddhist monk -- but it doesn't matter. The plot hinges on Jenna's horrified realization that her adult self is a witch, but "13 Going On 30" -- which was written by Cathy Yuspa, Josh Goldsmith and Niels Mueller, and directed by Gary Winick -- works foremost as a vehicle for its rising star. Garner, who's having a nice run (and jump and kick and punch) on the spy show "Alias," is a startling amalgam of hard-body muscles and soft-serve charm, a terminator and cupcake both. Whenever she's on screen you don't want to look anywhere else.
That's not bad for an actress who until this point hasn't been asked to do much in movies beyond steal "Daredevil" from star Ben Affleck (a snap) and make Leonardo DiCaprio look as if he's old enough, and willing enough, to have sex in "Catch Me If You Can" (ditto). Here, she has to play sweet and innocent in the body of, well, Jennifer Garner, and throw herself headlong into the sort of cheap nonsense -- pratfalls, a derriere-skimming nightgown, a dance-along to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" -- that might sabotage a less-assured performer. It takes moxie to squeal about your newly sprouted breasts while feeling yourself up, and Garner has moxie to go with her jumping muscles. She also has expert support in her equally attractive costars Mark Ruffalo, as her former neighbor, and Judy Greer, as her current sidekick.
Winick directed a handful of now-forgotten features before hitting film-festival pay dirt a few years ago with "Tadpole," a romantic comedy that featured such grubby-looking digital-video cinematography that it brought to mind actual dirt. "13 Going On 30" looks considerably better, certainly more studio-polished than "Tadpole." Winick doesn't have a distinctive style, although on the evidence of his recent work he knows how to stay out of the way of good actors. "Tadpole" features a killer performance from Bebe Neuwirth as a woman who toys with her friend's underage son with the blithe entitlement of Humbert Humbert. Despite a hint of edge in Greer's performance, there's nothing as jaggedly discomforting in this new film. Even its vision of career women as bloodless schemers happy to sell out a loyal employer and their closest friends comes coated in sugar.
Life is too short to get worked up about what movies like this are trying to say when all they're really saying is, "Isn't Jennifer Garner adorable and won't she make a great star?" She is and probably will. Still, it's instructive that when a woman is beautiful, single and successful in a studio movie it's clear that she's the kind of wolf-in-designer-threads who, if she hasn't already boiled a bunny or two, like Glenn Close's career girl in "Fatal Attraction," sharpens her teeth on the bones of friends and enemies alike.
Given that one of the target audiences for "13 Going On 30" are young teenage girls who may want to run magazines of their own one day, it's too bad that in Hollywood a working woman who doesn't turn tricks still can't cut a break.
'13 Going On 30'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content and drug reference
Times guidelines: Tame innuendo
Jennifer Garner...Jenna Rink
Mark Ruffalo...Matt Flamhaff
Kathy Baker...Beverly Rink
Christa Allen...young Jenna
Revolution Studios presents a Roth/Arnold Production, a Gina Matthews Production, released by Sony Pictures. Director Gary Winick. Writers Cathy Yuspa, Josh Goldsmith, Niels Mueller. Story Cathy Yuspa, Josh Goldsmith. Producers Gina Matthews, Susan Arnold, Donna Arkoff Roth. Director of photography Don Burgess. Costume designer Susie DeSanto. Production designer Garreth Stover. Editor Susan Littenberg. Music Theodore Shapiro. Music supervision John Houlihan. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In general release.