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'Little' review: Marsai Martin stands out in this just-passable comedy

Issa Rae  and Marsai Martin star in

Issa Rae  and Marsai Martin star in the comedy, "Little."  Photo Credit: Universal Pictures/Eli Joshua Ade

PLOT An abusive CEO is transformed back into her 13-year-old self.

CAST Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Regina Hall

RATED PG-13 (adult humor, suggested sexuality)

LENGTH 1:49

BOTTOM LINE A just-passable comedy, but an impressive vehicle for Martin, its young creator and star.

Rarely has a child actor walked away with a movie the way Marsai Martin walks away with “Little.” Granted, the movie was hers to begin with: It was Martin, the 14-year-old star of ABC’s “black-ish,” who came up with the idea of a grown woman transformed back into the kid version of herself. The concept gives her the starring role, of course, and thank goodness for that. Without Martin’s charm, sensitivity and beyond-her-years intelligence, “Little” would have much less to offer.

“Little” also features Regina Hall, who plays Jordan Sanders, the successful but abusive CEO of an app development company. We’ve seen bad bosses before — think “9 to 5” or “The Devil Wears Prada” — but Jordan is beyond the pale. She screams, throws objects, shoves people to the floor and even sadistically salivates on an apple before forcing an employee to eat it. Standard behavior for tech executives, you say? Maybe, but this is a bit much. In a frenetic performance, the otherwise excellent Hall (“Think Like a Man,” “Support the Girls”) turns Jordan into a cartoon rather than a person.

It’s actually a relief when, through a bit of magic, Jordan is reduced to her 13-year-old self and Hall is replaced by Martin, who frankly seems to better understand the role. Suddenly, Jordan’s doormat of an assistant, April (a somewhat underused Issa Rae), must not only act as guardian to a child but run a company. In a delicious irony, Jordan must go back to the very middle school where bullies helped turn a friendly, bespectacled girl into a vain, aggressive Mistress of the Universe. (In a clever, subliminal move, the film casts the same actress, Eva Carlton, as Jordan’s tormentor past and present.)

As fun as it sometimes is, “Little” doesn’t score all the laughs and the awwws that it could. Director Tina Gordon and her co-writer, Tracy Oliver, don’t always seem certain where the film is going or which character is learning which lesson. Nevertheless, Martin’s young-but-old version of Jordan consistently saves the day, whether trying to order wine at a restaurant, making goo-goo eyes at a handsome teacher (Justin Hartley) or just staring pensively over the balcony of her penthouse. With “Little,” Martin establishes herself as quite probably the youngest executive producer in Hollywood and most certainly a star to watch.

“Little” certainly isn’t the first comedy to have fun with the idea of switching bodies. Here are four more examples of this enduring genre:

FREAKY FRIDAY (1976) Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster play a mother and daughter who change places for one very difficult day. This Disney classic is still the grandmommy of body-switch movies, but you can’t go wrong with the Jamie Lee Curtis-Lindsay Lohan version, either.

ALL OF ME (1984) A lawyer (Steve Martin) finds his body half-occupied by the spirit of a dead millionairess (Lily Tomlin). For physical humor, Martin hit a career peak here, and Tomlin is terrific even though we mostly only hear her. Directed by Carl Reiner.

BIG (1988) Here’s the major inspiration for “Little,” the story of a boy who gets his wish to be an adult (Tom Hanks). It’s Hanks’ defining role — the adult naif — and an archetype he would return to in “Forrest Gump,” “The Terminal” and “Larry Crowne.

17 AGAIN (2009) Matthew Perry plays a man pushing 40 who is magically transformed into his high-school self (Zac Efron). Though not a smash hit, Burr Steers’ movie has nice performances and plenty of charm. Worth finding.

 
— RAFER GUZMAN

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