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‘13 Going on 30’ doesn’t add up

Jennifer Garner enthusiasm is the brightest part of this story of a 13-year-old who wishes she were 30. By John Hartl

Last year’s popular remake of “Freaky Friday” apparently suggested that audiences are ready for another round of body-switching comedies. The last outbreak, in the late 1980s, produced “Vice Versa,” “Like Father, Like Son” and one keeper: Tom Hanks' breakthrough, “Big.”

“13 Going on 30,” in which an unhappy 13-year-old girl grows up in a hurry, is no keeper, but it’s pleasant piffle. The director, Gary Winick, who demonstrated his ability to handle a wide range of actors in the low-budget delight “Tadpole,” makes the most of an appealing cast headed by Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo.

The script, credited to three writers, is a flimsy affair that relies heavily on coincidences and pixie dust. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and occasionally you sense the actors’ impatience with the woozier fantasy elements. 

Jenna Rink, played as a young teenager by Shana Dowdeswell, is unhappy in her 1987 high school, where she wants to be accepted by a snobbish clique. She fails to recognize that her best friend, Matt Flamhaff (Jack Salvatore Jr.), is clearly devoted to her, and she rejects him in favor of the in crowd.

“I don’t want to be original, I want to be cool,” she declares. “I don’t want to be beautiful in my own way.” Frustrated with being 13, she yearns to be 30, and suddenly, quite literally, she gets her wish (don’t ask how). Garner takes over the role at this point, and Ruffalo turns up as the adult Matt, who has been so neglected that they’re no longer friends.

While she may look 30, Jenna is still a 13-year-old inside, and Garner wittily embraces Jenna’s adolescent body language and preferences (she likes to hang out with 13-year-old girls who are just as frustrated as she was, and she even tries to pick up a teenage boy). When she finds that her 30-year-old self has become an editor at Poise magazine, she tries to revitalize the failing publication — by recapturing her teenage past.

She also discovers that she’s “not a nice person.” Her adult self has been sleeping with an oversexed athlete, she’s having an affair with a married man, she’s estranged from her parents and she’s being double-crossed by a high-school pal who works at the magazine. It’s all the result of her dismissive treatment of Matt; naturally, she tracks him down just in time to realize that he’s about to marry someone else.

In other words: we’ve seen this movie before. What makes it watchable are Garner and Dowdeswell’s exuberance, Ruffalo’s charming reticence (watch him resist, then succumb, to the rhythms of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” during a party scene), and the magazine episodes, which are dominated by Andy Serkis (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) as Poise’s panicky, exacting editor-in-chief.

Winick modeled the picture on one of his favorite Audrey Hepburn movies, “Sabrina”; the magazine scenes and the romanticized vision of New York recall another Hepburn classic, “Funny Face.” While Garner may no Hepburn, that doesn’t stop her from putting her own stamp on this fluff.