Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Jerry Leichtling and Arlene Sarner
Perhaps you’ve seen the 2004 film Thirteen Going on Thirty. It’s a comedy about a girl who strives for acceptance from her school’s popular clique, but cruelly pushes away her geeky best friend in the process. Magic happens, she’s suddenly a thirty-year old woman, and she’s made to learn life lessons in the process. For me at least, its an example of a film rooted in a fairly fun gimmick, that doesn’t know how to overcome its predictability.
Before Thirteen Going on Thirty, however there was 1986’s Peggy Sue Got Married. The film introduces Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) who attends her high school’s 25-year reunion while distraught over her impending divorce from Charlie (Nicolas Cage). Something about her mental state and location transports her back to the past. While Thirteen Going on Thirty derives its gags from a thirteen-year-old being in a thirty-year-old’s body, Peggy Sue Got Married goes for forty-three year old in a seventeen-year-old’s body.
There’s another key difference between the two films, however. While Thirteen Going on Thirty uses two actors for the protagonist’s two ages, Peggy Sue Got Married sticks with Kathleen Turner. This is a choice that aligns the audience’s experience with that of Peggy Sue’s: at first it doesn’t quite make sense what’s going on, but gradually it become clear that she has gone back to another time, and appears, to the other characters, to be younger than she is.
While Thirteen Going on Thirty may have slightly more name recognition for those of my generation, I suspect Peggy Sue has the edge in terms of staying power. While both films traffic in clichés: jocks, popular girls and nerds, Peggy Sue’s characters are real enough to transcend their archetypes. While both films use age-changes to teach their protagonist’s a lesson, Peggy Sue does not start her movie as someone with an obvious moral flaw (ie denouncing your best friend for being uncool). Rather, she is someone who has gone through the understandable pain of a divorce and marital infidelity. The lesson she learns is not the simple idea of “be nice to those who are nice,” but is instead specific to her character’s situation.
Admittedly a significant part of Peggy Sue’s appeal, in addition to fifties nostalgia, is the presence of young Nicolas Cage and Jim Carrey (the pair were in their early twenties). Consistent with the film’s style, the pair play both their teenaged and middle-aged selves. Unlike Peggy Sue, however, their characters’ appearances in the two different time periods are made to reflect their supposed ages. While Carrey is largely a funny-faced side-figure, Cage’s performance is a definitive part of the film’s nuance. In the film’s stereotype-filled universe, Cage’s character is meant to be understood as a bad-boy: more on the jock then nerd end of the spectrum. But the deeper reality of his character subverts the presentation and plays a key roll in Peggy Sue’s own character arc.
Focusing on Cage’s performance may not be the most conventional approach to understanding Peggy Sue Got Married. Indeed, Cage’s acting style almost got him fired from the film by his uncle, director Francis Ford Coppola. But regardless of what the film’s writer or director intended, I maintain that focusing on Charlie is the best way to appreciate Peggy Sue Got Married going forward. Peggy Sue is a gimmicky, predictable movie, but there are a lot of gimmicky, predictable movies out there. Peggy Sue‘s quirk and character depth allow it to break the very mould that it fits so well. Thirteen Going on Thirty tells audiences what they know to be true about being grown up, but Peggy Sue Got Married reminds us of what we forgot about getting there.