The Big White Review
Paul Barnell (Robin Williams) has a few problems. As the owner of a travel agency out in a small town in Alaska, he doesn’t really earn the kind of money he needs to pay the medical bills for his strung-out, highly-stressed, hyper-active, twitching Tourette’s Syndrome suffering wife Margaret (Holly Hunter), so he tries to obtain a payment from the insurance agency on a claim for his brother Raymond who is missing, presumed dead. Without a body however, the insurance company says he must wait seven years before he can be declared legally dead. Fortunately and co-incidentally, Paul just happens to stumble across a dead body fortuitously left lying in his dumper. Now, if he can just find a way for the body to be discovered with the face unrecognisable, his problems might be over…
…but then again, the body must belong to someone, and sure enough there are a couple of contract killers looking for it – no body, no payment for them either and unfortunately, “Raymond” has since been buried. Not only that, but the insurance company are, quite naturally, suspicious of the sudden discovery of Paul’s missing brother, particularly as, since he appears to be the victim of an accidental death, it ensures Paul a $1million payout. Ted Watters (Giovanni Ribisi), one of the company’s most diligent employees, the kind who are willing to go to extreme lengths on the hint of suspicious circumstances, isn’t going to let that kind of coincidence pass unchallenged. Things can only get worse when the real Raymond (Woody Harrelson) shows up.
Let’s get the Fargo comparison out of the way now. A black comedy, set in Alaska in snow covered locations, two incompetent killers and a dead body to be disposed of - the comparisons to the Coen Brothers film are inevitable, and unfortunate. Personally, although I love the Coen Brothers’ films, I’m not as fond of Fargo as most other fans, but it has to be said it handles its black humour with a great deal more sophistication, with more originality, with better characters and, lets face it, with more actual humour than this poor second-hand attempt. To say The Big White has plot holes is pointless - it’s not the kind of film where you would take any of the unlikely coincidences, contrivances, contradictions and just-not-making-any-sense the least bit seriously – but does it have to be so predictable? And does the humour have to be so obvious and laboured? Let’s see how many laughs we can get out of ways to dispose of a corpse! Let’s try to hide it! Let’s try to get it found! Let’s bury it! …Er …Let’s dig it up again! The only fun here is laughing at how unrealistic and weightless the dummy stiff is. And you know the film is trying too hard to be funny when a bunch of cops at the scene of the crime are all posing with big smiles around the corpse for a group photo, unless it’s The Naked Gun - and this isn’t. The film’s other vein of humour that is relentlessly mined is Holly Hunter’s supposed Tourette’s Syndrome, which involves her constantly saying the filthiest phrases at the most inappropriate times – at a funeral in front of a priest, in front of a TV camera etc.
This might have been funny (though I doubt it) if another person in the role of Margaret – Meg Ryan was originally in line for the part - but Holly Hunter is badly miscast here. She comes into her own when she has to get tough with the bad-guys, once they come looking for their dead-body (Tim Blake Nelson is great here), doing what she does best as the strong, determined character on the surface with an edge of vulnerability underneath, but when she tries to get her accent around the foul-mouthed utterances of what her character thinks a Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer sounds like (maybe we should be thankful we can’t make them out too clearly), it’s off-the-scale of badness and downright annoying. Unlike most viewers, I have some time for Robin Williams in certain types of roles, particularly ones where he plays against type in an ambiguously villainous role - The Secret Agent, One Hour Photo, Insomnia - but here he’s in sentimental mode, edgy, twitchy and troubled, a big-hearted sap. It’s sickening. Giovanni Ribisi, however steals the show. True, his character is pretty broad and obvious with, for example, none of the much more playing against type cool assurance and determination of Edward G Robinson in his investigation of Fred MacMurray’s claim in Double Indemnity , but allowing for the stereotype of the intensely officious insurance employee, Ribisi hits the right note. Smelling a rat, he’s in there ferreting around, if I may use two animal metaphors, since they are appropriate for the wide-eyed, pale-skinned, slicked-back haired character, frequently seen in the clinically clean, white environment of the insurance office. It’s strange that he’s the only suspicious person in an insurance company that seems quite happy to pay-out enormous million dollar settlements with no investigation, but… well, I said I wasn’t going to get into the plot-holes…
The Big White is released in the UK by 2 Entertain. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The video quality is perfect, or as close as you can get in Standard Definition. The snowy, white exteriors are coolly toned, sharp and detailed. Interiors also have perfect warmth, balance, tone and clarity. There is not a mark on the print, not a flicker of digital artefacts and no indication of any significant edge enhancement. Reds have possibly been slightly boosted, giving skin tones a less natural tone. The only issue is with the aspect ratio, as it is transferred here at 1.78:1, which I would guess is not the film’s original ratio. I would not think however that the film’s compositions have been compromised in any way that affects its presentation.
The audio track is Dolby Digital 5.1 and it performs well, if not in any way exceptionally. There is a solidity and clarity to the sound however and it comes to life during the music score, which is unfortunately rather heavily influenced by Riverdance, though The Eels contributions are rather good.
English hard of hearing subtitles are provided for the feature film, but not the extra features. They are in a white font and not overly large.
Mark Mylod provides a Commentary for the film and it’s fine, covering all the areas you would expect a commentary to cover – the locations used, the production design and post-production work, the casting, music, and anecdotes about the shooting and actors performances.
Adventures In Film Making (15:17) is a standard Electronic Press Kit making of – snippets of interviews with the actors and the director, taking you through what the film is about, with some behind the scenes footage on the difficulties with filming in snow. Obviously with Williams on the set, things are a little more fun here.
Selected B-Roll (11:19) consequently makes use of all the Williams on-set fooling around. Why waste it? Obviously though, Williams’ improvising is not something everyone will enjoy, but there’s more than that, the featurette giving you some behind-the-scenes look at how the Mylod paced, directed and contained a few of the scenes.
The Trailer (1:29) gives you a fair indication of the film and its style (or lack) of humour.
With a cast like this - Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Tim Blake Nelson, W. Earl Brown, Woody Harrelson and Alison Lohman, you’d expect a lot more from Big White than it actually delivers. Ok, with only a number of UK TV series (Cold Feet, Reeves and Mortimer) and one less-than-creditable previous feature film (Ali G Indahouse), you might question Mark Mylod’s ability to handle a feature film, but I think he and the cast only do as well as the script allows, and it’s a lousy script – unoriginal and unfunny. There are no problems with the DVD release, which provides a solid A/V presentation and the requisite, though uninspired, extra features.