The word on Tina Gordon’s “Little,” a slapdash modern inversion of “Big,” is that “Black-ish” star Marsai Martin came up with the idea for the movie when she was only 10 years old, and became the youngest executive producer in Hollywood history when the thing actually went into production a few years later. That’s a nice bit of trivia, but “the hacky premise for this studio comedy was pitched by the child star of a network sitcom” may not be the strongest hook for a PG-13 comedy that’s aimed at adults (though also still appropriate for older kids). If anything, it sounded like a chintzy excuse to soft-pedal another lazy remake at a time when audiences are desperate for original fare that rewards their decision to leave Netflix at home for the night.
And maybe it was. The finished product won’t exactly disabuse you of your most cynical assumptions; not when the pivotal transformation scene has the half-assed feel of an “SNL” sketch, not when the protagonist’s learned hostility is expressed through a transphobic joke that doesn’t even have a punchline, and definitely not when Rachel Dratch shows up as a Child Protective Services agent who busts out her best Cardi B trill. That’s par for the course in a comedy that’s probably too of the moment to age well; we can only pray that “Space Force” doesn’t mean anything to people who catch this movie on TV in 10 years.
Nevertheless, “Little” makes one thing perfectly clear: Martin — who was 13 by the time cameras rolled — is a lot more than a cute selling point. As an executive producer she might be something of a gimmick, but as a lead actress she’s a massive star. And when this movie works, it’s often because the mini “Little” mastermind finds a way to deliver a Tom Hanks-level performance in a film that is sorely lacking Penny Marshall-level direction.
Co-written by Gordon (who had a hand in the similarly refurbished “What Men Want”) and Tracy Oliver (whose other work includes “Girls Trip” and Ry Russo-Young’s upcoming “The Sun Is Also a Star”), “Little” starts with a sturdier foundation than “Big” ever had. Josh Baskin just wanted to be tall enough to ride the Super Loops and impress an older girl, but Jordan Sanders has some deeper issues to outgrow, and several decades to let them fester. A quick prologue set in the olden days of 1993 cuts right to the chase: When she was in middle school, Jordan (Martin) got bullied for being too much of a brainiac. And not like, taunted bullied. But like, violently assaulted during the middle of a talent show bullied. That’s when she decided she was going to become a boss, so that she could bully other people first.
Cut to: 2019, when Jordan has become the Miranda Priestly of Atlanta’s tech industry. Now played by the great Regina Hall (making the most of some very standard material), grown-ass Jordan is basically a rejected character from “Horrible Bosses.” She terrifies all of the underlings who work at her nonsense app factory, she cuts everyone in the morning coffee line, and she yells at April (Issa Rae), her underappreciated doormat of an assistant, for leaving her slippers an inch too far away from her bed. None of this table-setting business is even a fraction as funny as the awful blouse that Jordan wears to work — imagine a Picasso spray-painted on a pile of old napkins — an early and accurate indication that the movie’s only visual jokes are sewn into its wardrobe.
Gordon doesn’t even try to put some pizzazz into the scene where Jordan is cursed by a random child who’s hanging out around her office. The film’s inciting incident is treated with such disinterest that it feels like the movie is psyching you out for the real twist down the road. But no, when Jordan wakes up the next morning she’s horrified to discover that her boss brain has somehow been transplanted into her tween body, and with only two days before her company-saving pitch to the douchiest tech bro in town (Mikey Day, whose one-note character gets a better payoff than any of the leads). It’s the glo-down of the century.
“Little” might be paced like a New York City subway train on a Saturday night, hiccuping forward as if at random, but Martin brings so much weaponized side-eye to all of her scenes that the movie starts to feel like it’s actually going somewhere. It’s no secret that she’s a gifted comic actress, but here she gets to display a different skill set than she does on “Black-ish” every week. Stuck in school and full of impotent rage, young Jordan is cut down to size in the most literal way, and Martin’s performance is brilliant (and often very funny) for how it pinballs between teen and adult personas in a way that modern kids can, or feel like they have to.
It’s amusing to see Jordan let down her guard and make friends with her dorkiest new classmates — brace for a lot of awkward flossing — and hilarious when she forgets herself and hits on her Abercrombie-looking homeroom teacher. Gordon and Oliver know when to lean into the super uncomfortable sexual baggage from “Big,” and when to run far, far away from it, and Martin reads every moment just right.
At this point, it goes without saying that comic timing comes natural to Issa Rae, but with the exception of a few choice one-liners, she’s largely wasted on a role that only exists to smooth out the story. At times it feels like her character is holding the movie together with her bare hands, as most scenes have no real shape to them, and meaningful stakes never materialize. When all is said and done, “Little” doesn’t end so much as it runs out of energy. It also doesn’t help that the film looks like it was shot on an iPhone. The skies are all washed out, the lighting is pallid, and Jordan’s penthouse is the only location with any real personality; usually you have to watch a Marvel movie to Atlanta look this drab.
But whenever things seem really dire, Martin saunters in with attitude to spare, and puts everything in perspective. With talent that big, the rest of the movie seems little by comparison.
Universal Pictures will release “Little” in theaters on Friday, April 12.