Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #21

Big: A Look Back

 

Comedy is a hard thing to often grasp. It's easy to enjoy. It's easy to laugh. It's not easy, though, to write comedy. It's often not easy to act in a comedic role effectively. Even trained actors have a hard time hitting the right marks, tone and punctuate their puns. It's especially hard to direct comedy. Comedy is often one of those natural abilities and 'directing' a film or play with comedic purposes takes a fine touch - one that has the comedy always apparent and moving but at the same time not feeling manufactured or forced. Comedy can't be contrived, it has to be natural or, at the very least, appear to be natural (that's movie magic there). Even a great script or great comedic actor to rely on can be completely hindered by a director who doesn't grasp that. 

Comedy is about "elements" coming together to work. Many fail miserably, often relying on a boilerplate script or predictable formula. Some, though, will surprise you. Those elements, the writing, the acting and the directing, not only hit all the right notes but end up creating something magical in the end.

Big is just such a movie. It made a star of Tom Hanks, who is so convincing as a young teen it's scary, showed Penny Marshall was not a fly-by-night comedy director and proved that fantasy-comedy can cross all age boundaries, have a great sense of heart and character and appeal well beyond it's often stereotyped "kids movie" stigmata that moves like this are often generalized as (and rightfully so, considering that's how studios usually marketed them). Having James Brooks as your producer probably had something to do with it as well.

The reason why Big worked in such a manner is that it approached the content not necessarily as a kid living in an adult world, but as an adult nostalgically reminiscing about childhood and growing up. All those confusing real-world realizations rush into young Josh's world all at once. It's overwhelming, difficult and often scary to really take on. He fights to be a part of it. He fights to be accepted, something that always haunted him, and he fights to leave that horrible "childhood" behind and just be the adult.

But that's not the point of Big, is it? Josh realizes, as do we, that life is meant to be a journey or an album to be played. You can skip some tracks, sure, but you aren't getting the full experience of the music, are you? Big's entire point, and the point that has always appealed to me, is that your childhood should be cherished. Growing up might be hard, but you have to get through it. You'll be better off in the long run and when you do become an adult, you'll realize how great it was and, more importantly, how much you'll miss it. 

Isn't that the point of me doing 20+ articles looking back at the things I loved growing up? Big was one of those things, but for far different reasons twenty years ago. In 1988 it was about a kid, roughly my age, playing around as an adult with all sorts of toys and an awesome apartment. It was quirky, funny and I loved seeing a "big kid" on screen. Now I'm about the age of "Adult Josh" in the movie. A little older, perhaps. The perspective has changed drastically. Sure, it's still a fun, goofy movie, but now it has a sentimental place in my heart regarding childhood, learning the elements of life and growing up to become an adult - not skip ahead and not get the full experience. Now it's about leaving it all behind and moving on rather than looking forward to growing up and having 'freedom.'

Well, anyone over the age of twenty will probably tell you: you were probably far more free as a kid than you will ever be as an adult. I think that's what the filmmakers were pointing out, and how you should never, in any way, take your childhood for granted. You'll miss out on something special.


A Brief History of Big

-In 1984, screenwriter Gary Ross, son of screenwriter, Arthur A Ross, co-wrote a screenplay with his neighbor, Anne Spielberg, sister of some director named Steven. This, of course, is years after Ross's career paths ranging from Ivy League dropout, to failed novelist, to unproduced screenwriter, to fishing boat deckhand and winning $50,000 on Tic-tac-Dough.

-Through Anne's connections, the script made its way to producer James L. Brooks and his Mary Tyler Moore alum, Penny Marshall, who was looking for another film to follow up her debut, Jumping Jack Flash (a film she was hired on as a last-minute replacement, not a project she was actually behind).

-Hanks was the initial choice, however there were conflicts with his other films and the role was actually offered to vet Robert DeNiro. DeNiro's salary wouldn't allow it, the movie was not a big-budget comedy, and once his final answer came through, and additional rejections by Albert Brooks and Harrison Ford, Hanks was now available and placed into the lead.*

-During the production, Marshall took many unique approaches towards the directing, one being that she filmed every scene with "Adult Josh" with "Young Josh," David Moscow, and Hanks would study each scene and imitate Young Josh once real filming began. Hanks was also put into a room with Moscow and Jared Rushton (who played best friend, Billy) and given dozens of toys. Allegedly, though this, scenes such as the famous "silly string" scene between Josh and Billy emerged.  

-Big was a huge hit upon its release both critically and at the box office. It grossed over 150 million worldwide (budgeted around 18 million) and is also noted as the first woman-directed feature in history to gross over 100 million.

-Big also garnered two Oscar nominations: best Actor for Hanks (his first in what will become a string of nominations) and for best original screenplay by Ross and Spielberg.

-A stage musical emerged in 1996. It ran for 193 performances and received a Tony Nomination.

* Author's Note: Thank God.


 
 Top Ten Life Lessons of Big
 

Big actually has a lot of things to tell us and teach us through its 104 minute running time. Trying to narrow down ten that I thought were pretty significant was actually a little difficult (especially when trying to find some funny ones, Big has a good dramatic side and there were far more "serious" entries that comedic ones). 

Oh, and there's one obvious life lesson I won't be including:"Be Careful What You Wish For." Yeah, that's an old one and doesn't even need to be mentioned. So let's see what other things Big teaches us.


10: When Job Hunting, It's All About Impressions

 Once the realization that he has to make do for the time being with living as an adult, Josh pretty much accepts the fact he has to live as such. He can't steal. He can't keep bumming money off his friend. So fudging paperwork helps get him in the door, but really dressing and acting the part is what gets others to accept him. He's charming, dresses nice, is boyish (obviously) and overall friendly. As it turns out, all of those attributes are pluses, not minuses, and he sits in his job interview section we realize that the guy behind the desk doesn't really take too much notice of his paperwork, he just hires him. A few days later, Josh meets his real boss...and from that point on the sky's the limit for him and his career because people quickly become drawn to him.

That's what job hunting is about: a nice smile, a firm handshake and getting around those butterflys. Experience isn't important, the impression you leave behind is. 


9: Creepy Things are Creepy for a Reason

Ever walk by a scary looking house or a suspicious person? Ever second-guess walking down a dark alley or  shopping in a questionable store? There's a little voice in the back of your head saying "leave them alone" or "don't do it" usually.

Josh Baskin does not have that little voice. He's a kid so maybe those defense mechanisms haven't kicked in yet, but anyone who comes across a weird looking machine sitting at the end of a carnival (a nesting place for creepy things and people) ominously away from all the lights and fun will probably avoid it for a reason. This can be said about anything that makes you look at it and say "wow, I better walk  on the other side of the street" or "I better go over here" and certainly first asking  "is this thing plugged in?"

Also, be aware that Zoltar Machines are real...you have been warned.


8: Everyone is a Kid in Some Form (Or Still Wants to Be)

The story on the surface of Big is about a boy trapped in a man's body. The other side of that coin, though, is it's about every adult having a kid inside them wanting to get out. The character of Josh is used as a plot vehicle to showcase that, and more and more we see people succumb to it: form his boss, to his co-workers to his girlfriend. The difference is, adults (real adults, that is) tend to turn that off. They shun it, whereas adult Josh simply doesn't know any better. This unabashed gleefulness of childhood, in reality, is something we all wish we could do.

Take the famous floor-keyboard scene, for example. It, in just a few brief minutes, shows the unity of doing something "fun" and not caring about whether or not others think you're acting childish. People watch, laugh, applaud because they see two grown men unleashing their inner-child (one doing so quite literally). The kids watching are waiting for their turn, and the parents watching are wishing they had the guts to relive their childhood in the same fashion. Either way, everyone is enjoying it and their age doesn't matter at all.


7: It's All About "Perspective"

Why is Josh able to find success so quickly and, seemingly, so easily? The reason is because he has a fresh outlook on everything. He also says "bug" in a staff meeting and everyone goes nuts. His eyes may be adult in look, but are still kid's eyes in nature. Have you ever read or seen something dozens of times and not notice something that someone who's only seen or read it for five minutes notices right away? That's kind of what Josh is all about, and in a way kind of shows that we all need to "think outside the box" in life, work and even relationships sometimes. Going with the standard norms of everything is expected, but looking at it from a different angle can bring out the best in creativity, business sense, love, friendship...you name it. 

I never realized Big was telling me that as a kid. That's because I was a kid. Now as an adult, I see it...well I see it from a new perspective, don't I?


6: Women aren't Always Complicated...

The angle of the love story is something I admire in Big. It's bittersweet, and about hard truths and, eventually, hard goodbyes to something that would or could never be. Big showed us that, from a guy's perspective, women can appear complicated and hard to figure out...believe me, I know. Yet, at the heart of it all, are they really that different? They simply want something simple and want someone to love and to be loved back. Now, this isn't always the case, obviously, but Big, being both co-written by a woman (with the primary writer, Gary Ross, always known as a socially-conscious screenwriter) and directed by a woman, is sort of a message to men, if you think about it.

It has this kind of this over-arching theme that women aren't as difficult as we sometimes make them out to be - Josh, a kid, is able to figure them out quite easily it seems. When Susan, the love interest, is dancing with Josh, she says she feels safe with him, like she could tell him anything and that most men seem to be hiding something. Josh is different.There's another line in the film where Susan is asked by sleazeball Paul about what is so great about Baskin. "He's a grown up," she responds.

Big is not just about a kid learning he can't grow up too fast, but it's also about adult men, perhaps, learning they sometimes over-complicate things while trying to figure it all out. Maybe us guys should take a breath, step back, and reassess the facts when it comes to relationships.


5: You Need Real Friends


Josh would have ended up with nothing if it wasn't for his best friend, Billy. In the world Josh enters, he is a complete stranger. Everyone is two-faced and he just doesn't know who to trust or even what to do half of the time. Then you have Billy coming in to save the day and always there to not only help Josh out, but to remind Josh of who he is and where he comes from (something Josh slowly starts to forget towards the end of the film). Friends like Billy are a rarity, and Josh, much as he did in his journey, really took him for granted before realizing his best friend in the world is absolutely right.

Real friends keep you in line. Whether it's a quick note here or some tough love there, you need them in life in some form.


4: The Real World is a Scary Place

Big hits a striking, dramatic tone at one major part in the film, and it's then you realize this isn't just some regular, standard comedy about body switching. Josh runs away from home, his world there now in turmoil, and has to take up residence in the only place he can afford: an awful, run down crappy hotel. He sits, quietly, and takes it all in. The sounds of traffic and arguing neighbors escalates. Then there's pounding on the walls. He jumps up and starts barricading the doors.

Why? Because the real world is out there. It's at this moment that Josh realizes he's completely on his own and how the film tells us that jumping into "real life" is one of the scariest things you ever have to do.


3: There Are No Quick Fixes

We all want instant gratification. That's why there are "diet pills" and people get addicted to all sorts of narcotics. That's also why there's the Shake Weight.

It's nice to wish for something fast and quick, but are you really "learning" anything in the process? If you take a diet pill are you really learning how to lose weight and be healthy? In the case of Big, Josh wants to be big. He doesn't want to wait to be taller or older in a few years, to take that journey and learn patience, he wants it now. How does it end up? Well, he ends up realizing he missed out on a lot of great things. But I think I'll leave more on that for entry number one.


2: You Better Respect Your Mother

As Mr. T would say, that is.

You know, if Big was made today, there's one element that would probably be completely overlooked and not even considered: the connection of the mother, here played by eventual Oscar-winner Mercedes Ruehl. There's a scene where she absolutely breaks down, believing her son has been kidnapped.

Josh knows his mom is hurting. He writes her letters to try and get her to feel better, but they end up making her cry even more.  He tries calling and he ends up receiving threats."I will spend the rest of my life making sure you suffer," she says over the phone. Then he tries calling her by singing. "Memories...of the way we were..." which achieves nothing more than tears also.

The fact is, you need to appreciate your mom. That doesn't mean you need to love her necessarily, some moms make that difficult, I know. But you do need to appreciate and respect them. Mothers Day is there for a reason...but you shouldn't wait for just one day to call your mother and tell them you love them or appreciate all they did for raising your ass.


1: Appreciate Your Childhood, It Will Never Come Again

Easily the central point of the entire film. Don't grow up too fast, because your childhood is every bit as important in the learning and growing process as your adulthood. It's a journey, not something to be taken for granted. Josh might have despised being shunned by the cute girl or too short to ride the rides, but all that is a summation of what he will eventually become and bypassing...well, you see what happens. He simply is just not ready.

So the film, then, has you thinking back to all those life-changing times when you were a kid. Perhaps an A on a big test, a big hug from a grandparent or little moments at dinner or on vacations. The bad things are there as well, however. The bullies at school, the after-school detentions, the emergency room visits and knee-scrapes from falling off your bike. All of that is there for a reason, and you had better appreciate the bad as much as the good because, in the long run, you're better off for it.

The movie knows subtlety like no other, and this idea is exemplified beautifully. You see, there's this sub plot regarding Josh and a videogame he's playing, "The Cavern of the Evil Wizard." We see him early on as a kid, the opening shot in fact, trying to figure out how to get past a certain part and he fails, thanks to his parents yelling at him and time running out. His character dies as he can't seem to type in the right action.  We get the impression that this is likely a final boss and he's been working on defeating him for some time or, at least, spending a lot of time getting there. When he fails, you see the agony and frustration on his face. 

Then jump ahead an hour and a half into the movie. Josh is an adult, he has everything he wants and he sits down at his computer one evening and tries again at the exact same spot. Wouldn't you know it...he easily defeats it (consider this a call back to the "fresh eyes" entry, if you want). Yet, he's not overjoyed, he's not happy or excited that he won. He looks blankly at it and merely gives a half-smile.

Then the classic 80s montage begins. Josh walks through a neighborhood observing kids of various ages and the fun they are having. A school photo, playing in leaves, riding bikes, throwing baseballs...this on top of the game he so easily defeated does nothing but offer a blank expression and a sense of sadness.

Why? It's simple: he should have been a kid when he beat that game, hence why he spends a day walking around a neighborhood not dissimilar to his own. It's at this moment he realizes that the joy of childhood was stripped from him and all those great moments we all have as a kid  is something he can never enjoy. Beating that game as a kid meant something...as an adult it's just a game. Sure, he can buy all the toys and play all the games, but doing those things as an adult doesn't quite have the meaning and, some might say, wonder and beauty of remembering back to when you were ten or eleven and doing it then. To an adult, it's just another task completed, whereas to a kid it's something great and all those jumps-for-joys are warranted and, obviously, more fitting for someone of that age.

It's at this moment, and during the montage, that Josh not only realizes he lost his childhood, but we start appreciating our own childhoods as well. We take a journey back with him and see ourselves in many of these scenes...for Josh, though, he can't even do that because those wonderful things would never happen.


 

Big could have taken a cynical route rather easily. It could have ended easily with Josh always searching for the mechanical wish-granting machine and never finding it - perhaps a representation of our own desire to find our childhoods once more. Of course, I don't think it would be as beloved as it is if it had done that.

The "Age Changing" concept for a film is absolutely nothing new. Yet, I see something different with Big and always have. A lot of it was Tom Hanks, I'm sure. He's a hard guy to not like. The other is, I think, the purposeful points it makes without trying to cram it down your throat. In a lot of age-changing or age-swapping comedies, usually the end is to find the cure and get back to normalcy. Big makes you think a little harder than that. Josh could have ended up with the girl of his dreams (and she with him) and make lots of money. The "I need to fix this" idea doesn't even show up until the final fourth of the film. Instead, it becomes this slow realization that while he might be enjoying life, he's completely missed it at the same time.

 


 

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