When a 13-year-old New Jersey boy confronts an automated carnival fortune-teller called Zoltar the Magician, the kid confesses his most fervent wish: to be big. It’s a natural desire; he’s been hurting because his secret crush is a good foot-and-a-half taller than he. Next morning, when the boy rolls out of bed, he’s 6 feet tall and has stubble on his chin. He’s big, and he looks like Tom Hanks.
Big is the latest movie about a personality transplanted to a new body (a craze that includes Like Father, Like Son, and Vice Versa). Evidently Big was in the works before those other films, and it is the slickest of the three—and, in Tom Hanks, it has a most engaging leading man.
As a newly big person, Hanks can’t convince his parents that he is indeed their little son (they think he’s a kidnapper), so he head to New York to try to find Zoltar and reverse the process. During his search, he gets a low-level job with a toy company and, in the manner of Being There, soon rises to the top through his uncomplicated enthusiasm for toys.
His innocence also captures the eye of a jaded executive (Elizabeth Perkins). Admittedly, they aren’t quite on the same level; while riding in the company limo, she’s sensitively telling him, “I’m really vulnerable right now,” as he’s sticking his head out the sunroof and shouting, “Ejector seat!” But they get along.
Up until the point that it has to resolve itself, Big is a regularly funny movie. The director, Penny Marshall (who used to play Laverne in “Laverne and Shirley”), has a nice way of letting comedic scenes develop; Hanks’s introduction to the niceties of hors d’oeuvres at a fancy company party may be the best slapstick scene of the year (he daintily chews the kernels off a cob of baby corn).
Marshall has a real touch with scenes of liberation. There’s a marvelous moment when Hanks bumps into his boss (Robert Loggia) in a toy store and the two of them play “Heart and Soul” on a huge electronic keyboard activated by their feet. And when Hanks gets Perkins back to his apartment, which is littered with inflatable dinosaurs and wind-up toys, he loosens her up by inviting her to jump on his trampoline—a giddy touch.
The finish, which Marshall plays as sentimental, isn’t nearly as inspired as the earlier anarchy. When the movie goes soft, the wind comes out of the comedic sails. But Hanks does a wonderful job throughout, and continues to be our most energetic light leading man. He was not, apparently, the first choice for the part: When Elizabeth Perkins was in the area recently on a publicity tour, she said that Robert De Niro was originally slated to play the lead role, a fascinating if unlikely sounding possibility. Fascinating, but not necessarily funnier.
First published in the Herald, June 1988
The De Niro thing apparently should be “previously,” not “originally,” because some say Hanks was offered the part first but had scheduling problems. This is one of those movies that have the right elements so agreeably in place that the audience agrees to overlook a series of whopping issues (including the sheer weirdness of having a family experience the disappearance of their kid for a few weeks). In any case, Hanks is pretty glorious, and I enjoyed interviewing Elizabeth Perkins.