Alternately smarmy and achingly familiar, Little squeezes Big for one more run through the Hollywood grinder. (For starters, Shazam! does it better.) This time it’s the Tom Hanks movie in reverse: Instead of a kid turning into a grown-up, it’s an adult (Regina Hall) who gets zapped into her bullied, 13-year-old body (Marsai Martin). The young star of TV’s black-ish had the idea for the switcheroo switch-up when she was 10 years old; she then sold the idea to the studio suits and director Tina Gordon. Her efforts won her a screen credit as executive producer, the youngest ever to earn that title in a studio film.
Good for Martin, especially since her acting talent and comic timing are wonders to behold. Little is otherwise small potatoes, a smug do-over from Gordon (screenwriter of the recent What Men Want remake) and co-writer Tracy Oliver (Girls Trip) that telegraphs every joke and crushes every nuance. It’s great to see Hall as Jordan Sanders, a woman who becomes “the tech queen of Atlanta.” But the script hardly makes the character the embodiment of black female empowerment. Instead, she’s hell on high heels at work, denigrating everyone’s ideas but her own and riding herd on her assistant April Williams (Issa Rae) in the timeless Devil Wears Prada manner. The business tycoon is clearly overcompensating for the bullying she took during high school in the 1990s. Cue the flashbacks to young Jordan getting abused by mean girls for being a brainiac. Then a child visiting the office puts her own magic spell on the evil boss lady. Suddenly, the boss is 13 again in body, but this time with her adult self calling the shots. Or so she thinks.
The laughs should come tumbling down. That most of them don’t is due not just to Big fatigue but something more cringeworthy. The “eww” reaction kicks in when Martin is forced into circumstances like swilling wine at a chic restaurant and coming on to her hunky adult teacher (This Is Us star Justin Hartley) and the boy toy (Luke James) the adult Jordan uses to, er, relieve tension. The tween actress is less exploited in the scenes at school — the authorities insist she attend classes and that April serve as her guardian — in which she mentors other misfits like her child self. Teachable moments abound and they fall flat on their predictable butts.
Luckily Rae, the knockout star of HBO’s Insecure, finally gets in her licks when she stands in for Jordan at work to prevent the firm’s top client (Mikey Day) from bolting. Hall is basically wasted, reduced to bookending the film as we see Jordan, before and after, monster and penitent. But Martin is the sparkplug that keeps the movie from completely sputtering out. Her side-eye alone is worth the price of admission. The Little lady deserves a big hand.