When Romance Met ComedyWith When Romance Met Comedy, Caroline Siede examines the history of the rom-com through the years, one happily ever after (or not) at a time.  

Middle school is a special kind of hell, so it helps to have some sympathetic pop culture to get you through it. For those coming of age in the early aughts, that likely included 2004’s 13 Going On 30, a romantic comedy that skews toward the younger end of the all-ages spectrum. It did okay at the box office, but earned a second life as a sleepover favorite. It was one of the four films that Ariana Grande—who would’ve been about 11 when it was released—homaged in her “Thank U, Next” music video. When star Jennifer Garner posted a thank you on Instagram, Grande excitedly commented: “I watched this movie every night before bed growing up (and I still do sometimes, especially when I’m sad). I adore you! Thank you for all the inspiration and joy you’ve brought to my life.”

Prior to her winning comedic turn as a 13-year-old trapped in a 30-year-old’s body, Garner was known almost exclusively as a badass action hero. Alias was in its third season and she had just starred as Elektra in Daredevil the year before. She was yearning to shift her public persona a bit, so—as she explained on David Tennant’s podcast—she signed on for her first starring film role in what she lovingly referred to as a “wacko little movie that had no percent chance of being any good.” 13 Going On 30 unveiled a new sweet, funny, guileless side of Garner’s personality, one that’s a whole lot closer to her real-life demeanor. As she put it in one behind-the-scenes featurette, “I’ve never seen myself smile so much in something.”

13 Going On 30 is endearingly empathetic to the preteen girl experience. Garner prepped for the film by hanging out with middle schoolers, and many of the best scenes pair her with actual preteen girls, getting a ton of comedic mileage out of how perfectly she fits in with their dynamic. Garner projects just the right blend of innocence and savvy that defines a kid on the cusp of teenagehood. And the extensive dance background that proved so helpful in her action career translates to some phenomenal physical comedy skills, too. In the scene where she first wakes up in her new body, Garner moves as if she’s being pulled by puppet strings, conveying the complete sense of disconnection she feels from her newly lengthened limbs.

Despite the universal praise for Garner’s performance, 13 Going On 30 was otherwise pretty tepidly reviewed. A lot of critics dinged the film for being too much of a knockoff of Penny Marshall’s 1988 classic Big. It’s a clear source of inspiration (and the comparison is actually a compliment, in terms of how much Garner captures the winning spirit that earned Tom Hanks his first Oscar nomination), but the two films technically have distinct premises. In Big, Hanks plays a 12-year-old kid who wakes up in an adult body in his present-day life. In 13 Going On 30, however, 13-year-old Jenna Rink (Christa B. Allen) wishes to be “thirty, flirty and thriving” and inadvertently sends her consciousness forward into her future life, jumping from 1987 to 2004 in the process. 13 Going On 30 isn’t just a body swap comedy. It’s also a time-travel movie.

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Whereas Big is generally interested in the line between childhood and adulthood and warns against growing up too fast, 13 Going On 30 is much more didactic with its message. The closest comparison point is the final sequence of A Christmas Carol, where the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come takes Scrooge forward in time to show him what the future holds for him if he continues his miserly ways. In 13 Going On 30, Jenna learns there’s a cost to achieving all of her middle school dreams. She may have a spectacular apartment, a hunky boyfriend, and an impressive fashion magazine editor job (not to mention a former prom queen title), but she became a pretty horrible person on the way to getting those things.

Though the message is pat, the time travel element allows 13 Going On 30 to function as a metaphor in a way that Big doesn’t. Jenna’s confusion about her newfound life doubles as an allegory for a quarter-life crisis, which is mostly how her former best friend Matt Flamhaff (Mark Ruffalo) takes it when Jenna shows up at his door asking why they haven’t spoken since they were 13. Her desire to return to the simplicity of childhood is literal, but it rings equally true for Matt too. Who hasn’t suddenly looked around at their adult life and wondered how they got there? The most moving sequence is a montage set to Billy Joel’s “Vienna” in which Jenna flees the difficulties of adulthood to escape to the comfort of her parents’ house—a fantasy that’s just as relatable for 30-year-olds as 13-year-olds.

Keeping an otherwise goofy film grounded in some kind of humanity was a priority for New York indie director Gary Winick. Garner, who was already attached to the project, chose Winick to direct based on the strength of his 2002 coming-of-age Sundance comedy Tadpole. When Winick died of complications due to brain cancer in 2011, Garner offered a lovely tribute to how much she adored working with him:

Gary and I had the most successful collaboration possible… Even in a frothy romantic comedy, he found what was really human about a scene, or about a character, or about a moment. That’s not always easy or pretty. [While filming 13 Going on 30] he wasn’t afraid to bring the writer in and change the words completely and start again. So it was messy, but I loved every minute of it. I really, really loved him.

Winick brought on Tadpole co-writer Niels Mueller to do an uncredited rewrite of the original 13 Going On 30 script, which was penned by What Women Want writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa. Winick was particularly annoyed by the original script’s random dance sequence set to “Thriller,” but after being told by the studio that he had to keep the setpiece because they wanted to put it in the trailer, he pushed to at least find some kind of narrative justification for it. In the final film, Jenna’s dance emerges as her desperate attempt to save a flailing high-stakes work party. It’s a small example of the way the director embraced the tropes of a big studio rom-com while trying to subtly elevate them. You need only look at She’s All That for a rom-com that makes absolutely no attempt to justify its own highly choreographed dance sequence.

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Ruffalo was absolutely terrified to shoot the “Thriller” sequence, which comes through in his performance in a way that only makes the whole thing more endearing. Casting Ruffalo was perhaps Winick’s biggest masterstroke as a director. Another veteran of the New York indie world, Ruffalo has an affable, empathetic, nonthreatening charm that’s so much more important than the handsome confidence that rom-coms too often cast for in their male leads. Though Ruffalo had previously co-starred with Gwyneth Paltrow in the 2003 flop View From The Top, 13 Going On 30 fully launched his brief, unexpected stint as a rom-com leading man of the aughts.

Winick worked with his lead actors in extensive rehearsals (unusual for a big studio comedy) and encouraged them to find the humanity in Jenna and Matt’s relationship, which you can really feel in their scenes together. Winick and Garner carefully mapped out Jenna’s evolving level of maturity over the course of the film, and it was Ruffalo’s idea to let Matt’s arc play out as believably as possible. Though Matt is briefly won over by the magic of his childhood crush swooping back into his world, he’s not willing to throw away his whole life for her. As he tells Jenna when she shows up to try to stop his wedding, “You can’t just turn back time… I moved on. You moved on. We’ve gone down different paths for so long. We made choices.”

It’s a beautifully bittersweet scene that provides a moment of anti-rom-com heft before the film uses some second chance magic to deliver a traditional happy ending. But it also speaks to 13 Going On 30’s problem with stakes. The downside of the time-travel premise is that it provides an easy, obvious out for resetting the world. There’s never any real threat that the movie is going to leave Jenna as a 30-year-old with no memory of the last 17 years of her life, so the third act starts to drag as it digs into the minutiae of a timeline we know is going to be erased—particularly in Jenna’s workplace rivalry with frenemy Lucy (Judy Greer, having fun putting a mean-girl spin on her classic rom-com best-friend archetype).

And as with Big, 13 Going On 30 can never quite elude the inherent ickiness of a 13-year-old dealing with the adult world of sex and romance, even if it doesn’t cross nearly as many uncomfortable lines as that film did. (When you break it down, Big is ultimately the story of an adult woman unknowingly romancing a child; 13 Going On 30 at least has the “childhood friends reconnect” angle to temper things.) Still, it’s hard to say whether it’s creepier to watch Jenna get hit on by sexually aggressive adult men or to watch her try to hit on a 13-year-old boy.

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There are other elements to quibble about. The idea that the choices we make in middle school define us forever is rather fatalistic. And the reset timeline in which Matt and Jenna date from seventh grade into adulthood actually feels less romantic than them re-finding each other later in life. 13 Going On 30 spends a lot of time celebrating Jenna’s ability to revolutionize the fashion magazine industry with a focus on real women, so it’s notable that career success isn’t actively a part of her final portrait of suburban domestic bliss.

Still, as much as I proselytize about the under-appreciated depths of the rom-com, this is a film best enjoyed for its surface pleasures. Beyond its lead performances, those include a great ’80s soundtrack; Andy Serkis in one of his most memorable non-motion-capture roles; a middle-school mean girl clique full of future stars (including Captain Marvel’s Brie Larson); and Susie DeSanto’s stellar costume design, which perfectly captures how a 13-year-old from 1987 would style herself in early aughts fashion. 13 Going On 30 will probably always work best for those who were just the right age when they first saw it. Yet considering the key role tween girls have long played in keeping the romantic comedy genre alive, it’s nice that there’s one that loves them right back.

Next time: We get into the Halloween season with the zom-rom-com Warm Bodies.