Is it possible to make a movie that’s entirely unoriginal yet reasonably entertaining? Trick question: Hollywood does it all the time — it’s called a business plan. Still, “Little” comes as a pleasant, if minor, surprise. It’s a body-switch comedy that reverses the “Big”/”13 Going on 30” calculus: Adult woman magically transformed into her younger self, rather than the other way around. But it’s silly-sweet rather than silly-stupid, the script has enough snap to count, and – really, now – it allows us to spend time with Issa Rae.
Rae isn’t the main character in “Little,” but she is the star, a necessary (and welcome) by-product of a body-switch movie’s plot structure. It’s Regina Hall (“Girls Trip,” the “Scary Movie” movies) who plays nominal lead Jordan Sanders, CEO of an Atlanta tech company and all-around toxic boss; Rae plays her assistant April, a talented software developer stuck bringing Ms. Monster her coffee and cringing along with Jordan’s other employees.
Hall throws herself into her character’s meanness with delight and full-body slapstick, but she’s gone from the scene after Jordan falls under a magic curse (don’t ask; too complicated and it doesn’t make sense anyway) and wakes up as her nerdy, bespectacled middle-school self, played with amusing imperiousness by Marsai Martin of TV’s “Black-ish.”
So Rae’s onscreen the entire movie, hustling her annoying, tiny boss back to school (on orders from a social worker played with seen-it-all dryness by Rachel Dratch) while taking Jordan’s place at work and trying to come up with a new product for a strutting tech-bro client (Mikey Day of “SNL”). Martin fills the center as a mini-diva learning lessons in humility while Hall bookends “Little” with flair. (And here is my bi-monthly reminder to watch last year’s indie comedy “Support the Girls,” which really shoulda resulted in Hall’s performance getting nominated for something.)
“Little” is commercial fluff, but it’s uncynical commercial fluff, intent on giving its target audience (little girls, big girls, the men who love them) a good, emotionally satisfying time. The supporting characters tend to the cartoonish (especially the school Mean Girl, played by Eva Carlton) and toward the end the various morals are spelled out with an extra-wide Sharpie, the better to see them from the back row.
But the details in the screenplay by Tracy Oliver and director Tina Gordon are witty and sharp. (I especially liked Jordan’s beta-test African-American version of Amazon’s Alexa, called Homegirl and voiced by Tracee Ellis Ross.) The men are genial and extra easy on the eyes – Tone Bell as April’s supportive office crush, Justin Hartley of “This is Us” as a flummoxed schoolteacher, and Luke James as Jordan’s boy toy, who mistakes little Jordan for Jordan’s daughter and decides it’s time to step up to step-fatherhood.
You still come away remembering the scenes with Rae, who may be the most appealing person on any screen at this moment in time. The actress lacks the look-at-me brashness of your average comic performer, hiding a deft comic timing beneath a low-key exterior that might even seem humble. But Rae’s persona here, as in her HBO series, “Insecure,” is deeply invested in being seen, recognized, getting her due – without becoming one of the Jordans. Her struggles feel like everyone’s.
Which is why “Little” plays so nicely and well, despite your definitely having seen it all before and despite an over-reliance of topical references — Cardi B’s “brrr” tagline, “Fortnite” dance moves — that will make the movie seem dated in about six weeks. No matter. Enjoyable and disposable, “Little” is made for the moment, and if its tried-and-true lessons stick with a middle-schooler or two, we could do worse.
Directed by Tina Gordon. Written by Gordon and Tracy Oliver. Starring Issa Rae, Regina Hall, Marsai MArtin. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 109 minutes. PG-13 (some suggestive content)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.