Tag Archives: B

BIG FAT LIAR

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B

The old fable about the boy who cried wolf has been refashioned on screen so often by now (one of the niftiest versions was the 1949 thriller “The Window”) that a new variant hardly seems a very promising prospect, especially when it’s turned into a teen comedy. But “Big Fat Liar” confounds expectations and turns out to be one of the happiest surprises so far this year–an amusing, pleasantly old-fashioned piece enlivened by a good cast (even if they play too broadly at times) and boasting some clever bits. Amazingly enough, in a day and age when live-action pictures aimed at young audiences seem to exist on a stream of gooey substances and mild potty jokes, this effort from writer Dan Schneider and director Shawn Levy–both alumni of the Nickolodeon Network–happily eschews that sort of stuff and coasts along on a wave of good, clean fun.

The plot of the movie is hardly ground-breaking. Fourteen-year old Jason Shepherd (Frankie Muniz) is a prolific teller of tall tales who employs his overly active imagination and ready tongue to trick teachers and parents alike. When one of his scams gets him into so much trouble that he’s threatened with having to repeat a class in summer school, he pens a compensatory story called “Big Fat Liar,” about the trouble an addiction to falsehood can cause, that will earn him a passing grade; but in an admittedly contrived bit of business it’s appropriated by a Hollywood producer, Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti), the nastiest man in Hollywood, as the basis for a potential summer blockbuster–which he desperately needs to save an endangered career. Jason’s father refuses to believe the boy’s tale about losing his work to a cinematic mogul and no longer has faith in his son (who’s put into a dreary hot-weather class), and so Jason and his girlfriend Kaylee (Amanda Bynes) travel to Hollywood to get the producer to admit what he’s done. Wolf’s refusal leads them to concoct a series of elaborate humiliations designed to persuade the producer to give in and restore his father’s trust in Jason; in the process they enlist the help of the many enemies Marty’s made in the business over the years. In the end, of course, Jason learns that honesty is the best policy and Marty gets his comeuppance.

Though the narrative might be trite, Schneider–himself a former actor–gives it enough little twists and shadings (and some nice Hollywood in-jokes) that it’s pretty consistently funny, and Levy shapes things quite skillfully (apart from moments like a musical montage when Jason and Kaylee try on costumes from a studio warehouse they break into–a sort of mugging contest that overstays its welcome). He doesn’t keep his lead actors in sufficient check, though, so that their performances, while basically good, tend to go too far over the top. Muniz and Bynes are both attractive, engaging kids with real talent, and throughout they remain extremely likable; but Muniz does pop out his eyes and seem a bit smug from time to time (it’s his “Malcolm in the Middle” shtick, which is better suited to the small screen), and Bynes sometimes takes the role- playing aspects of her character a bit far. Giamatti is even more unrestrained, chewing the scenery so ferociously that the very word subtlety seems to have disappeared from his thespian vocabulary; still, he gets the job done. The supporting turns by Amanda Detmer (as Wolf’s harried assistant), Donald Faison (as a chauffeur and would-be actor) and even Lee Majors (as an aging stuntman) are more laid-back; the same can’t be said of Jaleel “Urkel” White, who seems to be having a fine time lampooning himself as the star of Wolf’s latest big-budget debacle–but he gets some laughs.

What ultimately makes “Big Fat Liar” work is its general mood. Good-natured and easygoing (even the obligatory schoolyard bully is more benign than usual, and it’s pretty funny when he’s compelled to impersonate Kaylee to deceive her nearly-blind grandmother), the picture proves an amiable throwback to the earlier, better pictures of John Hughes, with a good deal of the charm of a “Sixteen Candles,” along with a milder variant of the slapstick violence familiar from “Home Alone.” (One will recognize shards of “Ferris Bueller” here, too–an older woman in a car who stalls traffic, the boring teacher whose droning delivery is reminiscent of Ben Stein’s.) The result is an energetic family flick that should appeal to the adolescent set while providing a good time for their elders, too.

MONSTERS, INC.

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B

Disney’s answer to “Shrek,” it turns out, wasn’t last summer’s animated adventure “Atlantis: The Lost Continent,” which proved a considerable disappointment, but this new co-production with Pixar Studios, the creative force behind the “Toy Story” pictures and “A Bug’s Life.” “Monsters, Inc.” doesn’t possess the wit and sharpness of its jolly green rival; it’s a simpler, softer, gentler, and frankly more juvenile piece, one that kids will doubtlessly take to more enthusiastically than adults. Nor does it match the overall quality of the previous Pixar productions But technically it looks great, and it has an easygoing, light-hearted charm not unlike that of Disney’s underrated 2000 entry, “The Emperor’s New Groove.”

It also shares with that film one of its stars–John Goodman, who here voices James P. Sullivan, a turquoise-and-purple ogre who’s the head scream-generator among the denizens of Monstropolis, a dimension to be found just behind the closet doors of all human children. Monstropolis gets its power supply from the energy of kids’ screams, which employees at Monsters, Inc., like Sulley gather by visiting the tykes at bedtime. Sulley is aided in his work by his factory-floor teammate Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), an ebullient, roundish green cyclops who’s also smitten with the firm’s secretary Celia (Jennifer Tilly). Unfortunately, Sulley also has a rival: the slithering, snakelike Randall Boggs (Steve Buscemi), who’s engaged in a secret plot that unhappily brings a live human child, Boo (Mary Gibbs) to Monstropolis–a catastrophe, since the inhabitants there are convinced that kids are toxic, and that their mere touch will destroy their world. Before long, however, Sulley and Mike have bonded with the giggly Boo, and must defend her against the machinations of Randall, the CDF (Childrens’ Defense Force) and the intervention of company boss Henry Waternoose (James Coburn). Many chases, close escapes, and last-minute rescues follow, but it won’t ruin things to note that all ends happily.

The premise of “Monsters, Inc.”–the idea of bogeymen being salaried employees of some corporation–isn’t entirely new; it served as the basis for a short film, for instance, that was shown some time ago on the SciFi Network’s anthology series “Exposure.” But here it’s elaborated in a fairly familiar Disney/Pixar way, complete with cute kid and a heroic comic duo composed of a lovable guy and his manic little pal. The storyline doesn’t go many places you wouldn’t expect, and the level of humor is pretty rudimentary, but the picture still works reasonably well. There are a couple of potential problems. One is the notion of kids being construed as inevitably toxic and of SWAT teams being brought in to fight the “infection” they pose. This will strike many as an unfortunate plot point at a time of terrorist threats and anthrax scares. Then there’s a turn toward the end when young Boo is captured and confronted with an ominous-looking scream-extraction machine, an episode that might frighten younger viewers. But for the most part the movie is fairly innocuous, mildly amusing fare.

The voice cast does reasonably well. Goodman is fine, more animated–if you’ll permit the pun–than he was in “Groove,” even if putting him into cartoon form seems paradoxically to reduce his size and energy. Crystal gives Mike his all, and he makes a good foil for Sulley, although he doesn’t match the effect his buddy Robin Williams achieved in “Aladdin.” Buscemi, surprisingly, makes a rather pallid villain; he’s scarier–and funnier–in his original form. The rest of the performers are fine if unexceptional.

“Monsters, Inc.” does include one in-joke reference that will sail over children’s heads and probably elude most adult viewers too, but will give a good laugh to genre cognoscenti. That’s the name attached to a restaurant that Mike and his sweetheart Celia visit. It’s called Harryhausen’s. Given Ray’s pioneering efforts to bring a remarkable range of creatures to the screen–though not quite as many as are on display here (understandable in view of the technical limitations he was working under)–it’s a fitting tribute. Still, the most enjoyable part of the picture comes at the very beginning. No, I’m not talking about the “Star Wars: Episode II” trailer that’s being shown along with it, but a wordless short called “For the Birds” that precedes the feature, which offers a sly take on an encounter between a flock of chattering sparrows and a single gangly interloper. It would be impossible for any full-length work to sustain, over an hour and a half, the verve and sheer exuberance of a brief piece like this one, and “Monsters” doesn’t manage the feat. But despite some flaws, for the most part it offers a genial, family-friendly ninety minutes’ worth of amusement.