Much as her character is magically transformed from dweebishly insecure adolescent to glamorously successful adult, Jennifer Garner makes the transition from cult-fave TV action icon to full-fledged, ultra-charismatic feature lead in “13 Going on 30,” a star vehicle composed of second-hand parts that nevertheless gets great mileage (and big laughs) from its recycled plot. Certain to click with the youngish femme demographic, sprightly romantic comedy-fantasy could maximize long-distance B.O. performance as favorable word of mouth builds. Pic also is bound to make a splash in ancillary streams.
In fashioning a storyline that recalls several other time-tripping, age-switching scenarios — “Big” is only its most obvious predecessor — co-writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa return to the semi-fantastical vein they mined so profitably in “What Women Want.”
Early scenes set in 1987 briskly establish young Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) as a brainy/mousy waif who dreams of gaining acceptance by the hippest girls at her school. Matt (Sean Marquette), her classmate and not-so-secret admirer, advises her to be “an original,” not a conformist. “But I don’t want to be an original,” she pointedly replies. “I want to be cool.”
Jenna gets her chance to chill after she’s sprinkled with “Wishing Dust” during her disastrous 13th birthday party. She wakes up to find herself 17 years older — and, more important, drop-dead gorgeous — with a hunky celebrity boyfriend, lavish Manhattan apartment and fabulous job as editor of a glossy women’s magazine. Trouble is, she’s still little Jenna inside her head. From the moment she literally rolls out of bed as the cluelessly adult Jenna, Garner grabs attention with equal measures of giggly girlish exuberance and anxious-adolescent befuddlement. It’s not terribly surprising to see that, after three seasons of acrobatic butt-kicking on TV’s “Alias” and her Elektra-fying super-heroics in last year’s “Daredevil,” the fetching actress is exceptionally adept at physical comedy. What is surprising, and delightful, is the full-tilt energy and resourceful expressiveness she brings to conveying the illusion of an ungainly adolescent trapped inside a mature adult’s body.
Garner throws herself so fully and effectively into the role that in a few key scenes, she vividly conveys Jenna’s high spirits and giddy pleasure through the graceful curling of her toes.
In this kind of pic, the protagonist always comes to regret having a wish fulfilled. And, sure enough, Jenna learns she has risen to the top by being ruthless and demanding — qualities, it should be noted, that are greatly appreciated by her prissy editor-in-chief (Andy Serkis, only slightly less animated here than in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy). Her closest associate, Lucy Wyman (Judy Greer), is the conventionally grown-up version of her snootiest hip-chick classmate. And while Matt (Mark Ruffalo, establishing romantic-comedy leading-man credentials) has grown up to be an amiable and attractive photographer, he’s decidedly aloof when Jenna tries to reconnect with him, because the last time they met, as teens, she banished him from her life for being terminally uncool.
Helmer Gary Winick (“Tadpole”) does a nifty job of bringing a fresh spin to most of the script’s cliches and emphasizing nuggets of emotional truth provided by Goldsmith and Yuspa. Comedy only gradually reveals how much Jenna won and lost by transforming herself into her ideal of adult success, suggesting the scenario could have been played more seriously with thought-provoking results. (What if, instead of pivoting on magic, pic had dealt with a discontented woman who psychologically blocks all memories since innocent adolescence?) Happily-ever-after wrap-up is dramatically satisfying and commercially sound, yet also something of a predictable letdown.
Supporting players — including Marcia DeBonis as Jenna’s chronically cowering secretary — are first-rate across the board. A few even get to strut their stuff as dancers during one of pic’s funniest sequences, a party at which Jenna leads guests in retro moonwalking to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Other smartly chosen ’80s pop hits (including key tunes by Rick Springfield and Pat Benatar) pepper a soundtrack bound to generate strong CD sales.