Big Fat Liar
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Big Fat Liar

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The family comedy is a difficult genre to crack. It has to appeal to the pre-teen or early teen target audience but also be palatable to the adults. It’s a thin line for the writers, director and actors to tread and rarely is the desired results achieved. I was personally pleasantly surprised by how much I actually enjoyed ‘Big Fat Liar’. Watching in on a lazy Sunday morning I found myself laughing and getting into the flick. The story is simple, Jason (Frankie Muniz) is simply put, one of the best liars in the eighth grade. His tall tales entertain his peers even when the fail to dissuade the adults. After failing to get out of an important term paper Jason is faced with summer school unless he hand writes an original story within a few hours. Jason does so but on his way to hand it in he runs his bike into a speeding limo. Within the car is Marty Wolfe (Paul Giamatti), a shiftless Hollywood producer. Jason inadvertently leaves the paper in the car and tries desperately to convince his parents and teacher what happened. Poor Jason has cried wolf too often (here, consider the producer’s name, literally) and they don’t believe him. It seems that in this town every parent leaves home for a long weekend without the kids. This gives Jason the idea to go to Hollywood to get Wolfe to confess. Along for the adventure is Jason’s best friend, Kaylee (Amanda Bynes). They duo soon are on a mission to make Wolfe’s life so miserable that he will confess. Along the way they pick up the assistance from a limo driver Frank (Donald Faison) whose acting career was ruined by Wolfe and Wolfe’s assistant Monty (Amanda Detmer) whose existence reduced to making excuses and taking the blame for her horrible boss. What makes this film work is it has heart to it. The relationship between Jason and Kaylee is innocent, best friends that just happen to be of opposite genders. There is a polarization between this innocence and the completely reprehensible Wolfe. Everyone hates him, which provides a great excuse for the audience to enjoy the tortures he must endure. The final act of the film is the classic get even series of well-planed revenge. When the kids pour industrial strength blue dye into Wolfe’s pool he emerges looking like poppa smurf, even the adults can suspend belief here and sit back to enjoy the slapstick comedy. Of course Jason has to learn a lesson but it is properly placed at the end of the film, not constantly knocking you over the head throughout the flick.

The young stars will be familiar to most people whose kids watch TV (and that would be 100% of parents). Muniz is best known for his sit-com hit ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ but received notable praise for his recent film ‘My Dog Skip’. Here he is naturally the irrepressible scamp out to prove himself to his doubting father. Even though many of the pranks are extreme there is no malice in his performance. He is simply a kid getting even with a powerful man, a man that caused his father to doubt he could ever change. Along the way he has fun but he remains focused on proving to dad that this time he told the truth. Bynes is wonderful in her role as Kaylee. Bright, fun loving and resourceful, she is the perfect counterpart to Jason. She made a name for herself in a few Nickelodeon shows and is comfortable in front of the camera without any signs of craving attention. Bynes is a team player and it brings a lot to the role. Judging by this role and her recent work both on TV and in movies, she as a great career ahead of herself. She is one of the most natural comic talents I have seen in a long time. Giamatti does a great job as the rotten to the core Wolfe. He has range in acting shown by his role in Duets and his many TV and film character parts. His talent lies in the body control required by a physical comedian. This holds especially for his facial expressions, just at the point of being over the top yet held to the proper point. Detmer has been making a career with wacky roles like this and ‘Saving Silverman’. She has an excellent sense of comedy and timing. Among the many cameos are Jaleel White as himself and Lee Majors as the stunt man supervisor.

Shawn Levy also comes from the world of family shows, including Nickelodeon. In directing this film he did not try to overreach the mark. He nails it pretty much on the head. He paces the film fast enough for the young viewers yet he places a number of references and homages to films like ‘Jaw’ and ‘North by Northwest’ to give the adults a private little chuckle. The setting of the movie is the back lots of Universal Studios and if you keep you eyes open you will see props from almost every major film they ever made. While this may seem like a long commercial for the studio tour it provides a whimsical environment for the action. Levy is not a pretentious director. He knows the genre and works within it. No fancy camera work is obvious, just the straight forward, fast moving family comedy.

The disc is from Universal (considering the setting this should not be a surprise.) Universal is rapidly becoming on of my favorite sources of DVDs. They pay attention to the details not only with the blockbuster hits but, more importantly, to the smaller films. This demonstrates a love for films and a respect for those that purchase them. The audio is both Dolby 5.1 and DTS. Both are done well although the rear speakers are a bit under used. The full screen video is bright and has an excellent color balance. The only downside to the disc is it opens with the dreaded message ‘This film has been reformatted to fit your screen’. The disc is packed with enough features to keep your kids busy for hours. Amanda Bynes hosts the animated menus. There is a spotlight on location feature, a back lot tour and deleted scenes. Included is a commentary track aimed a bit more at the adults watching. Add to this a trivia challenge, ‘are you a big fat liar’ quiz, a little video game and DVD ROM access and you have a keeper. I liked it, I really liked it! And that’s the truth.

Posted 9/21/02

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