Thursday, February 7, 2008

Movies About Movies: THE BIG PICTURE (1989)

My viewing notes on Christopher Guest’s 1989 directorial debut The Big Picture include the line, “Thank God he started making those mockumentaries” and (scribbled about 1/3 of the way through) “I have yet to laugh once.”

I did eventually laugh. There is too much talent in the room not to occasionally land in the endzone. Even Guest’s dreadful other non-mockumentary, Almost Heroes, can induce laughter due to the presence of Chris Farley, Eugene Levy, et al. Some of the punchlines here are undeniable—like the premise of the sexy stewardess slash ghost story flick pitched as “ghosts by night, stews by day”—but much of the proceedings are hampered by Kevin Bacon’s inability to get out of aw-shucks mode. The jokes about Hollywood and L.A. are all so easy and seemingly cliché. There’s often no way to tell in hindsight if a joke was fresh at the time of its inception: I was 8 years old when this film was released, so I have limited context for its satire. There is a world of difference, though, between a joke that feels outdated and one that feels merely tired. Viewing the Big Picture, you have to wonder if it was ever funny simply to give Teri Hatcher big hair or have the protagonist drive a very, very small car or make all the extras at the party scenes grotesquely tanned.

What is most vexing about the film though—what makes me continue to mull it over instead of just consigning it 24 words of “not funny”—is that conceptually, this thing WORKS. The project that Bacon’s young, student-film-award-winning, wannabe director is attempting to get made in Hollywood is visualized as an organic, living thing. Whenever Bacon talks about it, we see on the screen exactly what he’s picturing. As the studio execs give him their creative input and he bends under pressure, we see the changes literally being made to his ‘film.’ Roles are recast with younger actors, settings are changed, etc. We see it happen, and we see its effect on Bacon’s character. It’s brilliantly done, but not, you know… FUNNY. Not really.

As the head studio exec subjecting the project to his own whims and tastes, the always wonderful J.T. Walsh gives one of the film’s two impeccable performances. Walsh was a man who was always cast as a slimeball kind of a guy, but he himself was such a loving man that some degree of humanity always shone through these sleazy characters. You even kind of rooted for him as the evil truckdriver menacing Kurt Russell in Breakdown. And so it is here. Walsh’s studio exec achieves a sort of George Costanza mystique: you know the character is a fundamentally bad, but the actor playing him is so sweet that the two merge and you end up loving a bastard. He and his assistant, played by Don Franklin, do a pretty good double act.

Another near-great performance—albeit one filled with annoying tics of the early-Nicholas-Cage-roles type—is given by Jennifer Jason Leigh as an eccentric fellow film student. The Big Picture is full of parodies, and it opens with four(!) faux student films. Leigh’s character’s “Afterbirth of a Notion” is the most spot-on, an imitation of surrealism, 80’s style. When asked if she’s working on any new films she says, “Nah, I’ve given up video. I’m into ham radio performance art now.”

The Big Picture
is tonally inconsistent and spends most of its time existing in a lame, 50’s-filtered, studio bound nonreality. By the end credits, the ‘quirky’ ‘comedy music’ main theme and the mere sight of Bacon’s tiny car caused me to cringe. However, one actor stands tall and stays totally REAL amongst it all: Michael McKean.


Piper said...

This movie may not be great, but you can't dismiss it either which is good to see that you didn't.

So Martin Short as the agent didn't do it for you?

As sappy as this sounds, I like this movie because it has a big heart. It's so strange and so random and I guess that's what makes it unique to me.

It's funny, this movie came out when I was beginning college and my father said that I needed to see it because it might just convince me to not go into film school - like it was some tragic behind the scenes account of how it really goes down in Hollywood.

Ed Hardy, Jr. said...

Piper: The anecdote about your father is rather amusing.

I actually didn't talk about Martin Short's performance because--like so much of his work--I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. Short always rubs me the wrong way, and it's not like I refuse to laugh when he's funny, but somehow I think I'm predisposed to think that something he does is lame, so he really has to hit a homerun for me to give it to him. (Which he does a few times in this film--"Because, nobody calls me a douche-bag!" and the way he'll sometimes happily stare off into space in the film definitely works.)