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Review: ‘Little’ is a cheery but clumsy body-swap comedy

“Little” is an alternately clumsy and inspired comedy that energetically tweaks some of the conventions of “Big” and other so-called body-swap movies.

The title of “Little,” an alternately clumsy and inspired comedy of supernatural comeuppance, tells you what you’re in for: It’s “Big” in reverse, more or less (and often less). This time the body-morphing shenanigans are visited upon Jordan Sanders (Regina Hall), a brash, bullying tech CEO who wakes up one morning to find herself trapped in the body of her awkward 13-year-old self (Marsai Martin). The laws of aging and physiology are briefly suspended so that Jordan can learn a lesson she should have absorbed long ago: Be nice.

Then again, as lessons go, maybe this one isn’t so simple. Certainly it isn’t always delivered in good faith. The admonition to be kind at any cost can become its own form of bullying, especially when a smart, self-sufficient career woman is on the receiving end. The Hollywood screen comedy tradition is full of such women, some of whom make the mistake of not smiling enough or thinking they don’t need a man to be happy, and who consequently need to be taken down a peg.

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To its credit, “Little,” directed by Tina Gordon (who wrote the script with Tracy Oliver), is not that kind of movie. For one thing, its message of kindness is directed mainly at middle schoolers, who, as everyone who has endured that wretched life phase knows, could stand to hear it the most. A circa-1993 prologue shows us Jordan, a young science enthusiast, being mercilessly mocked by her adolescent classmates and taking some consolation in the hope that one day she’ll be calling the shots.

Unfortunately, Jordan doesn’t just become a leader, she becomes a monster. Her coming-of-age coincides with that of a burgeoning tech sector, and when we next see Jordan years later, she has been reborn as a self-styled internet mogul and visionary (Hall). She strides through the open-concept offices of her self-named startup, modeling a fabulously chic wardrobe and heaping verbal abuse on her employees, most of all her assistant, April (Issa Rae). She’s a tech-sis Miranda Priestly, living out the ultimate revenge-of-the-nerds fantasy.

Regina Hall in the movie "Little."
Regina Hall in the movie "Little." (Eli Joshua Adé / Universal)

Emphasis on fantasy. When her nonstop awfulness gets her cursed by a young girl who’s learning magic (and clearly better at it than she realizes), Jordan is returned to her awkward, diminutive teenage body. Once again she will have to roam the cruel halls of middle school, sporting thick eyeglasses and an Afro wide enough for the mean kids to stick pencils into it, in one of the movie’s more subtly empathetic gags. This time, at least, Jordan is armed with a hefty pocketbook and grown-up smarts — and also, unfortunately, a grown-up libido, which at times pushes the comedy into almost admirably awkward territory.

As her life spirals into magically ordained chaos, Jordan must turn to the much-put-upon April for help. This turns out to be a smart move on her part as well as the movie’s. Rae, the creator and star of HBO’s “Insecure,” gives the picture’s stealthiest, loopiest performance, animating every scene with a goofy sense of mischief that feels happily untethered to any narrative agenda.

April, though mistreated by Jordan and often ignored by her other colleagues, is smart and self-assured, and more than willing to sit back and appreciate the comic upside of Jordan’s impossible situation. She also has a big idea to pitch at work and needs a slight confidence boost to do it, but mercifully, the movie doesn’t prescribe her a bunch of lessons to balance out the buddy-comedy equation. Again and again, the character slips the knot of formula.

April Williams (Issa Rae) and little Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) in "Little," co-written and directed by Tina Gordon.
April Williams (Issa Rae) and little Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) in "Little," co-written and directed by Tina Gordon. (Eli Joshua Adé / Universal)

Rae’s costars, much as they try to harness the same comic energy, aren’t as well served. Hall, who won several well-deserved critics’ prizes last year for “Support the Girls,” does a much more exaggerated and villainous boss-lady turn here, and once she disappears from the picture, Martin (black-ish”) is largely stuck mimicking her imperious mannerisms. (Both actresses are also credited as executive producers.) The character they’re playing is on a predictable road to self-improvement paved with a few flat-footed comic set-pieces, plus one too many obvious stops in Bullytown and Empathyville.

As with a lot of formulaic retreads, the virtues of “Little” can be found in the margins. If you feel so moved, you can savor the guilt-free objectification of Jordan’s boyfriend (Luke James) and her middle-school teacher (Justin Hartley), who are regarded as their female counterparts normally would be in a movie like this — as possibilities to be entertained, ogled and eventually discarded. You can also give yourself over to the gorgeous outfits (designed by Danielle Holloway) lining Jordan’s art gallery of a closet, whose bright, bold colors have a way of perking up every scene.

These may be ancillary pleasures, but I’ve seen a few too many dimly shot, indifferently dressed studio comedies to take visual beauty for granted, or to pretend that it doesn’t express its own emotional meaning. Jordan’s luxurious penthouse and open-concept corporate offices may be lifestyle pornography of a high order, but they also convey this movie’s look-at-me optimism, a lightness of comic spirit, better than its plot and dialogue do. That’s not the nicest of recommendations, but it’s also no little thing.

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‘Little’

Rated: PG-13, for some suggestive content

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

Playing: In general release

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