Hollywood Satire, Kiddie-Style
If movies have taught us one thing, it's that children are not to be underestimated. Whether they be cold, calculating monsters (Village of the Damned) or simply very inventive at warding off criminals (the Home Alone series), most kids in movies are portrayed as wise beyond their years, joyfully precocious in how they intellectually surpass dimwitted adults. Although Big Fat Liar follows this traditional theme, it arrives in theaters with an edge over its direct-to-HBO "Family" counterparts.
This comedy boasts a screenplay sharper and brighter than most family-oriented projects, presenting a story containing opportunities for both children and adults to have an equally good time. Most of all, however, Big Fat Liar offers one element most similar flicks lack: characters who actually do seem smarter than they're taken for.
Fourteen-year-old Jason Shepherd (Frankie Muniz) has a knack for outlandishly bending the truth on occasion. But one day, his parents and his English teacher catch him in one of his lies, and Jason is faced with writing a story for class in three hours, or else he'll spend his upcoming vacation in summer school. On a whim, Jason writes an intriguing tale titled "Big Fat Liar." While on his way to drop the paper off, he runs into (or, should I say, is run into by) unscrupulous movie producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti) and accidentally leaves his assignment in Wolf's car after receiving a ride to school from the unpleasant man.
Also a master at spinning lies, Wolf keeps Jason's paper. Because his story is missing, Jason ends up flunking English. Later that summer, when he heads to the movies with his best friend Kaylee (Amanda Bynes), he makes a shocking discovery. Not only did Wolf steal "Big Fat Liar," it's set to be next year's must-see movie. Bent on revenge and driven by the urge to reinstate his trust with his parents, Jason and Kaylee travel to Hollywood on a quest to make Wolf "fess up" to stealing Jason's paper. To accomplish their goal, they must resort to pranks like pouring blue dye in Wolf's pool and gathering together every person the evil producer stepped on over the years.
Big Fat Liar doesn't run the gamut of adult-oriented jokes and innocent, kiddie-involved fun like Shrek or Monsters, Inc., but in its own way, the Dan Schneider-scripted (Good Burger) comedy appeals to viewers of all ages. For the parents, Schneider includes various Hollywood style in-jokes, including cameos by Jaleel "Urkel" White as himself, "Six Million Dollar Man" Lee Majors as an aging stuntman always being referred to as "Father Time" and "Grandpa," and a John Woo-type director character who wants 12 different camera angles and doves in every shot of the film. But at heart, Big Fat Liar is for the kids. Youngsters will no doubt enjoy the Jim Carreyesque quality of Giamatti's performance, especially when Jason re-routes him to a birthday party where he is mistaken for the clown and receives an all-out assault by the kids in attendance.
The only parts of the film that didn't work for me involve its ending -- which delivers a message that practically negates the purpose of the film -- and the way-too-obvious plugs for other Universal Studios movies (in the prop department, there seems to be an overabundance of E.T. dolls and Jurassic Park dino models).
Muniz and Bynes, on loan from television's "Malcolm in the Middle" and "The Amanda Show" respectively, play the lead characters engagingly. They are convincing as two precocious teens who end up being more mature and intelligent than the slimy producer they've targeted for revenge. This leads us to Paul Giamatti, the wonderful character actor who has brightened up flicks like Private Parts (unforgettably playing Howard Stern's boss) and Duets. Here, Giamatti portrays Marty Wolf as a cartoonlike villain who, with his blue skin and bright orange hair, actually ends up looking like a cartoon character. It's amazing how Giamatti can be screaming at the top of his lungs one minute and in the next second execute a joke with straight-faced perfection. He has a knack for creating a memorable comic villain you can't help love to hate. White and Majors have a ball poking fun at themselves (White rattles off about how he wants to be taken seriously as an actor...in a cop movie co-starring a chicken), and Amanda Detmer (The Majestic) gives a sweet/frantic performance as Wolf's harried assistant, who's had it up to here with having to cover for his lies.
By spoofing Hollywood and glorifying children over adults, Big Fat Liar combines elements of The Player and Home Alone. Younger viewers may prefer Snow Dogs, but Big Fat Liar is a perfect treat for the early preteen-age crowd.
MY RATING: *** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal and rated "PG" for some language.)
Review also posted at www.ajhakari.com.