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LITTLE - Review - We Are Movie Geeks

Review

LITTLE – Review

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(from left) April Williams (Issa Rae) and little Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) in “Little,” co-written and directed by Tina Gordon.

In this weekend’s new comedy, several familiar elements are tossed in the movie blender hoping to come up with a frothy cool entertainment. You’ve heard the old phrase, “Be careful what you wish for”? Well, with this flick it’s “be careful what gets wished on you”. Just two months after a self-absorbed ambitious businesswoman of color got zapped with an unusual ability in WHAT MEN WANT, we’ve got another woman (though much more abrasive) getting a “Twilight Zone-style” upgrade. Well, makeover is more like it. An extreme one for certain. Perhaps in tribute to the passing last year of the multi-talented Penny Marshall, we’re seeing another variation of her greatest directing smash, BIG. Last week it inspired the number one box office hit SHAZAM!, in which a pre-teen lad transforms into an adult super being (but he’s still the kid inside). This time out, an adult woman wakes up as her pre-teen self (no magic word spoken, though). And her grown-up self is still inside a body that’s petite although the title is a “catchier” term, and a “hip flip” on the iconic 1988 comedy-drama: LITTLE.

The story really begins in the early 90s (hmm, SHAZAM! began with an earlier flashback). Over-achieving middle-schooler Jordan Sanders (Marsai Martin) is anxious about presenting her science project at the big class assembly. A “mean girl” sabotages it and JS ends up at the hospital, vowing to become a ruthless adult. Which we witness in the present day as the “grown-up” Jordan (Regina Hall) awakens in her plush penthouse home. She immediately calls up her overworked, abused assistant April (Issa Rae) to berate her and make sure she will have everything in order for her arrival at her software development company (JSI,natch’). Oh, but first Ms. S must dismiss her late night “snack”, the tasty toned Trevor (Luke James), who wants to be more than a “B-call”. After a fast ride in her flashy wheels, Jordan storms into her HQ and is stunned to see multi-millionaire media mogul Connor (Mikey Day) sitting at her desk (with his expensive sneakers propped up on the glass top). He needs to see a pitch for a new app from her and her team within the next 48 hours. After he leaves, the agitated Jordan is irked to see the donut truck guy’s nine-year-old daughter doing magic tricks for the patrons outside the JSI building. When Jordan orders the junior Copperfield to leave, she waves her wand, and points it at the lady, proclaiming, “You are mean. I wish you were little.” The next morning, Jordan is middle school-sized once more (Martin again). When her neighbors call child services, April rushes over to pretend to be her aunt (mom Jordan had to dash out of town) and take her to school. Crisis momentarily averted but the clock is ticking. Can they track down the “magic girl” and get her to reverse the “spell” before Connor’s deadline, otherwise JSI will be history?

This high concept comedy is fueled by an energetic engaging cast lead by screen (big and TV) vet Hall who goes for cartoon demon diva, the polar opposite of her acclaimed (several critics’ group awards) work in last year’s “indie” darling SUPPORT THE GIRLS. Hall is a shrieking sister of Scrooge in the opening sequence bouncing from home to office, terrorizing anyone in her path. Thankfully, by story’s end, she’s not done the whole Ebenezar turn-around, but Hall conveys that she’s on the “path”. Happily, her intensity is matched by the delightful Martin as her “little-self”. It’s through her efforts that we see more of the “mellowing” of Jordan, even learning to care about a trio of “uncool” kids who dream of triumph at the big talent show (JS knows it’s a set-up and works to intervene). But, Martin shows us that the adult JS is still there especially as she tries to put the moves on hunky teacher Mr. Marshall (the befuddled “beefcake” is played with charm, and unease, by Justin Hartley of the TV hit “This is Us”). Martin is quite the formidable force of nature who makes a great screen partner to the gifted Rae (also a TV star on “Insecure”), who can barely contain her joy in getting the “upper hand” on her tyrant boss (best shown in the school parking lot “throw-down”). Equally entertaining are the scenes of Rae’s April “cutting loose” on Jordan’s colossal closet (leopard, baby), her making creative choices (even “pitching”) and her hesitant office romance with the supportive Preston (Tone Bell another TV sitcom vet). Also enhancing the laughs are two “old pros” from the “trenches” of SNL. Day, from the current crew, is superb as the arrogant, clueless Connor, while former “cast member” Rachel Dratch delivers the laughs as “no nonsense” Child Protective Services Agent Bea . She’s (to quote one of her lines) so much more than “Okerrrr”.

Director Tina Gordon’s follow-up to 2013’s PEEPLES hammers the punchlines with confidence, even as the script (co-written by her and Tracy Oliver) sometimes veers off track on subplots with little “pay-off”. This is particularly true of the school sequences with her new trio of pals which includes a tired “makeover” montage and a weird stage performance that may be intended for the lead character to come “full circle”. Instead, it derails the office story momentum, making us question whether the big “deadline” was two days. This contributes to the typical comedy flick “lull” around the one hour mark, not helped by a pointless restaurant karioke contest betweem “little” JS and April (filled to the brim with slapstick as stale as the breadsticks used as microphones). Ditto to the big reveal with Trevor and it’s resolution. Because of the film’s tonal shifts and distracting “B” stories LITTLE comes up short, very short, to the body-switching flicks spawned by the Marshall/Hanks enduring BIG-hearted masterwork.

1.5 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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