Big Fat Liar (2002)

D: Shawn Levy
S: Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti

Entertaining kiddie revenge film in which congenital liar Frankie Muniz (TV's Malcolm in the Middle) pits himself against amoral Hollywood producer Paul Giamatti (Planet of the Apes), who has stolen his school assignment and turned it into a blockbuster property. Likable performances from Muniz and schoolmate Amanda Bynes and a correspondingly despicable turn from Giamatti as the villain make for an enjoyable tale of turnabout and poetic justice which, predictable though it is, is always fun to watch. This is a story about trust, but though its moral core is pure after-school special, its sensibility is closer to Home Alone. Arguably though, where John Hughes moved towards cloying sentimentality and unnecessarily graphic violence, Big Fat Liar takes enough time with its characters to hearken back to a more old-fashioned type of comeuppance. The seeds of Giamatti's downfall are firmly planted in his demonstrated bad behaviour, and the forms of revenge inflicted upon him are in proportion (and appropriate to) his vices. No swinging paint-cans and flame-throwers here, but startling and amusing gags like being turned blue and being sent to a children's party in place of a clown, all motivated by a righteous determination to prove that being dishonest does not so much get you out of trouble as dig you in deeper than you even realise.

Like the recent, oddly belated Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, the idea of a movie shot mostly around the sets and lots of the studio which produced it is quite unappealing. There is a nagging sense of cheapness and self-indulgence which threatens to detract from the story. The fact that Muniz and Bynes hang out in the props department of Universal Pictures while the plan their revenge means that there are plenty of opportunities for in-jokes and cost-cutting, and there is sometimes a risk that the film will be soft on its subject to the cost of its sense of humour. Luckily, Big Far Liar is happy to send up the Hollywood system insofar as it can embody all of its evils in the character of Giamatti. The movie business is not presented as a wonderland or theme park, but, at least as far as Giamatti is concerned, a breeding ground for insensitivity, selfishness, and plain old-fashioned meanness. There are funny scenes involving his treatment of various people on the set, amusing moments in his offices, gags left and right which point out that making movies is not always fun. The film even goes far enough to parody the marketing of summer blockbusters, and even the sickly sentiment of the children's film with its "film within the film" at the end. Still though, no one comes to this looking for Swimming With Sharks, and Muniz is able to enlist the help of 'good' people in his quest, including Lee Majors sneakily reprising his role from the TV series The Fall Guy in all but name.

In spite of its generally good script and sprightly pace, the film is very much controlled by Giamatti. His performance is beautifully turned, from the swagger and bearing of his character to his double-takes and grumpy-growly dialogue. He snarls like WC Fields and moves like Jim Carrey, hilariously prowling around his designer home to the tune of "Hungry Like the Wolf"in one scene before diving into a swimming pool filled with dye, and he successfully portrays the character's determination to keep his composure even as the actor himself walks around in blue make-up with orange hair. There is tremendous precision in this piece of acting, and yet it seems so easy to him that it is likely to be overlooked by 'serious' considerations for awards (like Gene Hackman's largely overlooked scene-stealing role in Heartbreakers). Adults will nonetheless enjoy the film all the more because Giamatti is in it, and kids will be able to respond to his performative and narrative villainy just as they should. The film is worth seeing for him alone, though most kids will simply go along for the ride and enjoy it for what it is. Just as well really, and why not?

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.