America, meet your new cinema sweetheart: Jennifer Garner. With her lush, broad radiant smile, delicately chiseled features, and extremely magnetic personality, Garner seems poised to (gently) snatch the crown of Screen Queen from the reigning Julia Roberts (sorry, J-Lo, but you never stood a chance).
Garner will almost certainly have her misses, just as Roberts had with Dying Young and the more recent Mona Lisa Smile — but for now, she’s It. And with luck, she’ll remain It for years to come.
She’s off to a helluva good start. Alias, the ABC television series on which Garner stars as a butt-kicking superspy, has attracted an insanely dedicated following. I count myself among the faithful and will, in fact, state right here and now that this spectacularly complex, profoundly ambitious series is the most entertaining action-drama ever to make it on to network television. Though it’s an ensemble show, Garner’s emotionally nuanced and deeply compelling portrayal of Sydney Bristow is its conduit to reality. Bristow is akin to a superperson, but Garner makes her completely believable, completely real. She sells the character with all her heart.
Just as she sells — again with all her heart — Jenna Rink, an awkward thirteen-year-old who finds herself magically transported into adulthood in 13 Going on 30, a coming-to-terms wish-fulfillment fantasy. That Garner’s light and lively performance in this air-muffin of a movie makes you forget all about her weekly stint as the uber-serious Bristow is a testament to the actress’s skills. We who watch Alias knew Garner was good. We just didn’t know how good.
The movie, on the other hand, is not so good. It’s clunkily directed by Gary Winick, who made the similarly clunky Tadpole and it adheres to its narrative formula with a slavish inflexibility. The military is more lax than this storyline. Not that the film needs to be unpredictable, but a little novelty would have been nice. It’s no understatement to say that Garner and her co-star, the winningly scruffy Mark Ruffalo, are reason enough to pay the price of admission (though you can save yourself a few bucks by going to a matinee).
The story kicks off in the ’80s, where Jenna is morose about her thirteenth birthday. “I want to be thirty, flirty and thriving,’ ” she curtly informs her mom (Kathy Baker), quoting the cover story of her favorite women’s style magazine, Poise.Â When a chance encounter with some magical sparkling dust grants Jenna her wish, she awakens as herself some seventeen years later. Oh, she’s thirty, she’s flirty, and she’s thriving. She’s also a cutthroat, scheming editor at Poise magazine, lives in a Fifth Avenue apartment and is dating a New York Ranger. At first Jenna is thrilled. But she quickly realizes the cost of her dream come true and — Freudian bong, please — extreme personal growth ensues.
Self-defined and empowered by her adolescent mindset, Jenna realizes that being popular and powerful doesn’t mean you have to be a back-biting harpy. Sometimes all it takes to win friends and influence people is a little tenderness, a few well-placed polka-dots, a raspberry-flavored Razzle, and a step-by-step knowledge of the Zombie dance from “Thriller. ”
The setup is a waxy blend of Peggy Sue Got Married and Big. But 13 Going on 30 ultimately lacks the core richness of either of those two life-affirming flicks. It’s too concerned with sprinting to the finale. It feels scattered and rushed. There’s no depth, no cinematic elegance.
It doesn’t matter. It’s Garner’s movie, her moment to shine. And the actress brings such a marvelous innocence to Jenna — eyes wide open, tongue Razzle-reddened, aura of a young girl’s unjaded joy for life — that her unencumbered buoyancy carries the movie long after the plot has stalled (which would be about fifteen minutes in). Garner vanishes — Meryl Streep-like — into the role. And it seems clear to me that both this and Alias are harbingers of things to come from a gifted young talent who so clearly deserves our full attention.