Since I’ve been on a little bit of a thirty-years-ago kick lately, why not take unearth a movie review of a film released in June 1988. I wish I could report I wrote about Big when it hit theaters, but I wasn’t quite plying that particular trade. This was first posted at my former online space as part of the “Flashback Fridays” series.
As I recall it, Big was the first film I saw when I went away to college. It was a June release, but those had a tendency to slip back into town at the end of the summer in humble little Stevens Point, Wisconsin. Sure enough, during my first few days in my new academic home, sleeping in a converted study room in Hyer Hall because the dorms were overbooked at the start of the year, one of the four screens of the nearby Campus Cinema was playing Penny Marshall’s comedy about a boy who grows up unexpectedly fast. It wasn’t a transformational experience, exactly. It was, however, a nice bit of personal foreshadowing. I would spend countless hours in Stevens Point movie theaters in the years to come.
Putting aside nostalgic pangs, the movie itself is pretty terrific. It had the weird misfortune of coming out when there was a spate of movies about boys magically tossed into adult bodies, but Big was the only one that really worked. This certainly owed a great deal to the performance by Tom Hanks as Josh Baskin, bringing a winning innocence and uncertainty to this kid thrust into an adult world, his previous posturing abut wanting to grow up stripped away from the scary reality of it. Hanks had a career that was flailing at this point, far better known for the films that were resounding failures than anything else. He probably looks back fondly on Volunteers since it’s where he met his wife Rita Wilson, but no one else does. Big was a clear view of how well he could do when the material was better, and he got a Golden Globe and his first Oscar nomination for the performance. The bumpy road wasn’t completely smoothed over at this point. There were still problematic films to come, things that probably seemed like good ideas when he signed on for them, and fascinating disasters. Then there was the freeway pile-up that was The Bonfire of the Vanities, which Hanks was served a hefty portion of the blame for considering most decided his was woefully miscast as “Master of the Universe” Sherman McCoy, although any film that is counting on Melanie Griffith to do dramatic heavy lifting has graver misjudgments contained within its frames. That was actually the film that changed things for Hanks. He retreated and rethought his career, emerging a year-and-a-half later reunited with Penny Marshall to deliver inspired character work in A League of Their Own. From there, back-to-back Oscar wins loomed.
The other major beneficiary of Big was Penny Marshall. Her debut as a film director was thoroughly unengaging, borderline unwatchable Whoopi Goldberg comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash (now that I think about it, there are a remarkable number of Whoopi Goldberg comedies that can be described in the same unkind manner), but Big demonstrated a deftness and a command of tone that briefly earned Marshall greater opportunities. Probably the most notable was her very next film, Awakenings, which earned her the distinction of being one of several female directors that crafted a Academy Award Best Picture nominee without getting corresponding attention in the directing category. Marshall’s boost was more short-lived. By 1994’s Renaissance Man, her directing was surprisingly indifferent. Only two more films followed after that, neither registering much more than a blip on the cultural consciousness. It’s now been ten years since she directed a film.
I don’t know that anyone would consider Big a classic, but its the sort of film that remains charming and warm and offhandedly delightful, especially when discovered somewhere amidst the legion of channels on a lazy, rainy weekend afternoon. But, again, maybe that’s my nostalgia typing. After all, somewhere in my psyche, the film represents the door cracking open to a completely different level of commitment to the movies. It helped this kid grow up into who he’d become, too.