Monday, November 29, 2004

The Big Empty
Review by Sombrero Grande

Whenever I find myself on the fence as to whether or not I liked and would recommend a film, usually DVD extras will give me that needed push one way or the other. If listening to the director talk about the film rubs me as, “this guy has no clue about good filmmaking,” I’ll finally understand why the film underwhelmed me and be satisfied, though disappointed, knowing that I officially wasted two hours of my life on the artistic vision of a clod. On the other hand, a smart, thoughtful, witty commentary will cause me to reassess the film and, though I may still not consider it to be great or anything to write home about, I’ll at least be able to say it was “alright” or “not bad.”

What did I learn from hearing first-time director/writer Steve Anderson in the “making of” feature on the Big Empty DVD? I learned some interesting tidbits, like the fact that Anderson expected to shoot the film originally just himself with some friends and therefore didn’t write anything into the script that he didn’t already own or know how/where to easily acquire. I also learned that Anderson wasn’t quite sure himself about the ending of the film and what really happened. He discusses the “mysterious” quality of the character known as “The Cowboy” without ever hinting at anything other than the fact that The Cowboy is really just mysterious for the sake of being mysterious. Hmmm.

A good aspect of The Big Empty is that, from the first shot to the last shot, you’ll find yourself never knowing what’s going to happen next. A bad aspect is that you’ll never be surprised by what happens next. The central character in the film is a struggling Hollywood actor who goes by the painfully unimaginative stage name John Person (Jon Favreau). One day, John is approached by a creepy neighbor (Bud Cort) and told he’s been chosen to deliver a blue suitcase to a man named The Cowboy in Baker, California and if he does this all John’s financial debts will be taken care of. If that’s not a heavy-handed catalyst for getting the story rolling, I don’t know what is. John then travels to Baker, a very small town on the road from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and gets caught up in more than he bargained for, which mostly consists of A) quirky indie film clichés or B) events foreseen through not-so-subtle foreboding.

One thing I thought the film accomplished quite well was the surreal feeling of being out in the desert, surrounded by seemingly lifeless stretches of nothingness. Even before the film moved out of L.A., that surreal feeling was there in the way the story started eerily unfolding. The world around the characters felt dead, like they were the only ones around. Even the first shot of the film, with Jon driving down a deserted big city street (obviously part of the Universal Studios backlot), immediately accomplished this eerie effect.

The acting really has its ups and downs in The Big Empty. I like Favreau, and he was pretty good here. Rachel Leigh Cook and Sean Bean were good as well, but Adam Beech felt painfully miscast as an evil, murderous boyfriend. He never felt sincerely threatening at any point, even while waving a gun or chainsaw at someone. Kelsey Grammer has a hard time playing anyone other than Frasier and poor Jon Gries, who was so good as Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite, is far more annoying than humorous as a perverted, invasive motel manager. Daryl Hannah is invisible as a barkeeper, but since she doesn’t really do all that much in the film it’s hard to say if she was really “good” or not.

The unclear-for-the-sake-of-being-unclear ending is more annoying than thought-provoking, especially after learning on the DVD of the writer/director's own unclearness on it's meaning. We're given an ending point that's so unresolved it felt to me like an obscure X-Files fan fiction script. Only, unlike The X-Files where the mystery is there to tease you into watching next week's installment, there won't be another episode of The Big Empty, so pretty much the whole endeavor felt like a waste of time. I can't get into details and specific criticisms of the ending without delving deep into spoilers, so I’ll conclude this largely spoiler-free review with the following advice. While I wouldn’t casually recommend The Big Empty to anyone but real, hard-core indie flick or Jon Favreau fans, I also wouldn’t try to dissuade anyone who’s very interested in checking it out from doing so. If you think that’s a supremely non-committal ending to a review, it only reaffirms my feelings toward this underwhelming, “not bad” movie.


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