Jenna Rink (Garner) is a self-conscious New Jersey girl living her 13th year in a state of 1987 hell. Unpopular, and with a geeky boy for a best friend, Jenna wishes she were 30 years old, and with all adolescent embarrassment behind her. When her wish magically comes true, Jenna awakens one morning to find a naked man in her New York apartment, her junior high adversary her best friend (blandly played by Judy Greer, “What Women Want“), and a high-profile job at the magazine she loved as a kid. Wide-eyed and confused, Jenna runs to find her old friend (Mark Ruffalo, “You Can Count on Me“), who has since grown up to become a struggling photographer, for help. As the two slowly reconnect and try to put past differences behind them, Jenna learns the horrible person she has grown up to be. Armed with her untainted, pre-pubescent heart, she tries to change her ways.
There’s no way around it, “13 Going On 30” is dreadfully formulaic, featuring scene after scene of situations that have been covered by a small army of other films within the last few years, as well as being a complete facsimile of the Tom Hanks classic. Worse yet, it traffics in smelly “I Love The 80s” pop nostalgia that renders the first 15 minutes of the picture unwieldy and forced. If you look at “13” with one eye closed, there really isn’t anything in its favor. That is, if you don’t count Jennifer Garner.
I don’t condone the level of cliches readily apparent in “13,” nor do I stand by idle when the film begins to be weighed down by them in the climax. But Jennifer Garner’s lead performance single-handedly rescues the worn out “13,” saving it from teen-girl-cinema doom. Garner is a beaming presence in every frame of the picture, sprucing up the dreariest of sequences and the most hoary of cliches. Having been used to Garner strapped into her tough facade in “Alias” and last year’s winner, “Daredevil,” Garner pulls a 180 as she melts down to the eternally excited and curious Jenna. Encumbered with the customary confusion and acceptance routine the time traveling film hands her, Garner makes the tedious material find a happy place through her enthusiasm and failure to recognize when director Gary Winick (“Tadpole”) is asking her to look like an ass for a laugh. Garner makes the comedy pop, the nostalgia bubbly (Razzles never had such a sweet product placement), and the icky plot seem somewhat tolerable. It’s a great performance.
Garner even survives a dreaded dance sequence, which finds Jenna trying to revive a sagging party with some “Thriller” moves. This type of scene is usually a dead end for a comedy, but Winick and Garner pull some mystical “Matrix” moves and actually find a way to make the moment hilarious. Getting stiff Mark Ruffalo out on the floor is one key to laughter, but having Gollum himself, Andy Serkis (in a supporting role as Jenna’s magazine editor) burn the floor with some moonwalking is icing on the cake. Indicative of the entire movie, the centerpiece “Thriller” sequence manages to narrowly avoid embarrassment to become something that enlivens the film even more.
“13 Going On 30” does have some insignificant, but nagging, gaps in logic (why would Jenna act scared of her cell phone, but work a 2004 cordless with easer), a completely pointless “evil” character (there’s enough drama in the situation alone to fill an entire movie), and doesn’t have the greatest sense of cutting edge soundtrack selections (if you’re not sick of Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” by now, you will be). But “13” is relentlessly sweet, beautifully acted, and is warmly aware of the passionate pre-teen spirit. If you don’t dig too deeply into the proceedings, there’s a terrific little film in there amidst all the hackneyed tripe.Rating: B+