“Little” is about what happens when an adult woman (Regina Hall) is punished for her bullying, vainglorious ways by turning into her 13-year-old self (Marsai Martin). As the premise for a comedy, this kind of body switch is just about foolproof. “Big,” “13 Going on 30,” the several variations on the “Freaky Friday” theme — it’s almost always fun to watch grown-up souls inhabiting immature physiques, and vice versa. And so it is here, even if this go-round leaves a lot of potential hilarity on the table.
One unfortunate byproduct of the way the conceit is handled here is that Hall vanishes for most of the movie. She plays Jordan Sanders, a one-time middle-school nerd who is now the founder, C.E.O. and horrible boss of an Atlanta tech company. Jordan terrorizes all her employees — banning carbs from the office; yelling at everyone; singling out some for verbal or physical humiliation — but reserves her worst for her assistant, April (Issa Rae).
Rae, the creator and star of “Insecure” on HBO, plays a version of Issa Dee, her character on that series. Sputtering and high-strung, April tiptoes up to the edge of self-assertion, and then falls backward into a familiar pit of shame, self-doubt and frustration. Jordan is the opposite, and Hall makes her less a monster than a winner enjoying her victory a little too much. “Little,” directed by Tina Gordon from a screenplay she wrote with Tracy Oliver, disapproves of her behavior, but can’t resist admiring her as well.
Not just because she prospered in spite of youthful obstacles, but also because she’s funnier, smarter and more charismatic than the people around her. She’s Regina Hall, in other words, fresh from her performance as the best boss in the world in “Support the Girls.” Her gleeful alpha act here feels like fair compensation for the nonsense she had to put up with in that film.
But as I said, she evaporates too soon. Not that the arrival of Martin in her place is cause for disappointment. If you’ve seen this amazing young actress as the scary twin on “black-ish,” you know to be afraid, and her impersonation of a self-confident 38-year-old woman coping with the insult of being treated like a middle-school student is flawless.
The same can’t be said for “Little” itself, I’m afraid. Like many big-screen comedies these days, it errs on the side of caution rather than outrageousness. The few instances of racially conscious humor are about style rather than power, and there are other zones of contemporary experience where the movie chooses not to go. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily — jokes don’t always need to be abrasive or topical — except that the movie isn’t quite silly enough either. Once April takes on child-care duties, there are a handful of slapstick set pieces (she and young Jordan tangle in the school parking lot, perform impromptu Mary J. Blige karaoke in a fancy restaurant, ogle a hot eighth-grade teacher played by Justin Hartley) but never the full zaniness that the actors deserve.
And the inevitable sentimental journey into lesson-learning gets lost in swamps of well-meaning equivocation. Young Jordan befriends a trio of middle-school misfits, and teaches them about either the joys of hard-won wealth or the importance of being true to yourself, or something. In turn, she comes to grasp the importance of being nice as well as rich and powerful. Meanwhile April gains self-confidence. But not too much of it. Or something.
But if the story is a mess, the performers — as is also customary in movie comedy — save the day and the protect the investment. They are helped enormously by the costume designer (Danielle Hollowell), who concocts outfits that look like sleek diva-wear on Hall, dress-up clothes on Martin and trying-way-too-hard ensembles on Rae. All three women look terrific as well as ridiculous.
Which may be part of the problem. “Little” is overly protective of its characters and its audience; it’s soothing rather than sharp. That’s most likely because of an anxious concern for grown-up sensitivities. Smart 13-year-olds are likely to roll their eyes as well as laugh.