Screengrab - The Funk of 40,000 Years
I don't remember Jennifer Garner from "Felicity". But then, I never watched it fanatically, and theres a good chance I missed the episodes she appeared in. It was a show crowded with young and beautiful characters, anyway, in the manner of all post-"Dawson's Creek" teen tv drama, and Garner may just have been another pretty face in the crowd for me. She appeared in my consciousness in the way many actors do - suddenly, in a matter of months, she seemed to be everywhere. There was a new US tv show, created by one of the guys behind "Felicity", which sounded like a spin on that show, only given an injection of genre. It was called "Alias", and from what I read about it, I had a feeling I'd like it. Then she showed up in "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) before taking the sacrosanct, crucial (to comic book geeks) role of Elektra in "Daredevil" (2003).
She was fine in a small role in the Spielberg film, but I didn't much like her in "Daredevil." Her character is something of an enigma in comic book form - sometimes hero, sometimes villain, shes most often anti-hero, generally unpredictable and not always likeable - and the film translated this into a series of cliches. Its a bad film anyway, and though she looks fantastic in her leather costume and breezes through the action scenes on the back of all the training for "Alias", Garner just fitted right in with the shortfall in quality surrounding her. But I caught up with "Alias" on dvd, and that was when I began to appreciate Garner.
For starters, shes obviously beautiful. But not beautiful in an obvious way - she is somewhat gangly, her face almost too strong, those cheekbones almost comically prominent, her lips so full. And she can act. In "Alias" she made Sydney Bristow a believable character in a cartoon universe. Sydney feels pain and fear and suffering and Garner delivers it all, despite the silly formulas and the endless mcguffins of the plotting and the often flimsy characterisation, with truth and what feels like emotional authenticity. She is the key factor in what makes those early seasons of Alias work so well. The audience believes in her, cares about her, and that allows the show to get on with everything else.
The strangest thing about seeing her in Gary Winick's "13 Going On 30" (2004) is how much of it she spends smiling. If you have grown accustomed to seeing her in "Alias", where she spends much of her time crying or tense or sad or lonely or worried, that long face creased with lines of pain, it is almost shocking to see her beaming with such full-bore brightness. And her face seems built for smiling - she is all teeth and dimples in best movie star, Tom Cruise fashion, every inch the Texan cheerleader. The film is a girly teen comedy and and a blatant "Big" rip-off, full of terrible dialogue and scenes that have been better done in other films and overused 80s songs. But it has a few elements that elevate it, chiefly Mark Ruffalo and Garner. Ruffalo may just be the best actor of his generation, with the greatest range and sensitivity, and hes steadily building an interesting career. But he'll never be a movie star, no matter how many romantic comedies his agent persuades him to do. He's almost too interesting and too complex for the singularity required by stardom.
In "13 Going On 30" his Matt is sweet but baffled, wary of Garner's Jenna and yet charmed by her. Yet Ruffalo never lets him off the hook, and we can see Matt's anger at Jenna and his hurt, and understand how it effects his decision at the film's end. None of which would work without Garner's performance. Is it an indictment of her career to say that "13 Going on 30" is easily the best thing she's ever done? She throws herself headlong into her performance without any vanity, and she carries the film along in her wake, just as she did "Alias". In her first scenes, after 13 year old Jenna has awoken to find herself somehow transported into the body (and life) of her 30 year old self, Garner gurns and gawps for fully ten minutes. She walks differently, imitating the awkwardness of an adolescent adjusting to an adult form. She delivers her lines in shrill shouts and rushed mumbles. And she makes it all work. Just as Tom Hanks did so brilliantly in "Big", she makes us believe in the wonder of a child in the adult world. She begins to enjoy her grown up life, for a short time, and she seems to wander through a 20 minute spell in the film grinning at everything, constantly delighted by the world and her place in it. As her sterling work on the many action scenes in "Alias" proved, Garner is a great physical performer, and she here demonstrates that shes also a gifted physical comic, as she makes her gangly way through Jenna's many pratfalls and double-takes.
My favourite scene is one of those scenes that shouldn't work, but somehow does. Again, thats mainly down to Garner and Ruffalo. Jenna works at a style magazine, and ordered by her boss (Andy Serkis) to enliven a damp squib of a party, she asks the DJ to play "Thriller", drags Matt onto the dancefloor so that they can run through the routine they learned together from the classic video for the song, and after an awkward beginning, soon the entire crowd is copying them. Its an undeniably cheesy scene, but like the film generally, it succeeds despite this, Garner and Ruffalo playing it both for laughs and some sort of nostalgic tingle. They both seem to be enjoying it, too, always helpful in a musical number. I love the gawky hesitance in Garner's earliest steps, the way she communicates Jenna's desire to dance and unease at doing so before this crowd, then her utter surrender to it, her "come on, Mattie!" and delight at the response. She manages to pull off being physically funny and yet sexy too, one of the best things about her performance. It means that the sequence becomes genuinely euphoric - the mass happiness of a dance combined with Jenna's personal triumph and the reunion with Matt. Plus, its to "Thriller", a great pop song, ridiculous as it is.