Two friends are about to cut one Hollywood big shot down to size.
Head of the Class alumni Brian "Birds of Prey/Smallville" Robbins and Dan "Gee, I'm real sorry your Mom blew up, Ricky" Schneider continue Hollywood's reinvention of kids movies. Frankie Muniz stars in what could have been a really long episode of Malcolm in the Middle, if not for a scene stealing supporting cast led by Nickelodeon empress Amanda Bynes, veteran stage actor Paul Giamatti, and Clueless Scrub Donald Adeosun Faison.
Facts of the Case
Jason Shepard (Frankie Muniz) is a professional con man in the body of a 14-year-old. He has taken the art of lying to whole new levels, manipulating everyone in his life to get what he wants. That is, until he meets his match in Hollywood über-producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti), who takes advantage of Shepard's lost school essay and turns it into the summer's next big blockbuster. Now it's up to Jason and his best friend Kaylee (Amanda Bynes) to take down Wolf by beating him at his own game. How far will two teenagers go to prove that the truth will set you free?
Producer Brian Robbins, formerly a B-grade sitcom actor (Head of the Class), has developed the Midas touch when it comes to the much-coveted 8-14 "tweenager" demographic—and he shows no signs of stopping there. Having put Nickelodeon on the map with such shows as All That, Keenan & Kel, and The Amanda Show (yes, the same Amanda), Robbins has moved up to the adult table with critically acclaimed hits Arli$$, Smallville, and Birds of Prey, as well as films like Varsity Blues, Summer Catch, and Hardball. Enlisting the help of old friend/screenwriter Dan Schneider (Better Off Dead) and director Shawn Levy (The Famous Jett Jackson), the trio continue the process of raising the bar on family entertainment. These Gen-Xers, who grew up on the multi-level humor of The Simpsons, have learned from their predecessors and infused new life into a tired old formula.
At its core, the film is nothing revolutionary—bad boy out of control, gets taste of own medicine, exacts revenge on those who wronged him, and learns valuable lesson in process. So now you're asking yourself, what makes this film different? Well, first off, the actors have talent—good comedic timing and the ability to deliver some truly great line reads. Amanda Bynes in particular steals focus from Frankie Muniz in almost every scene they share. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Muniz' work on Malcolm in the Middle, but Bynes' skills operate on a much higher level. Just check out the menus on this disc and you'll see what I mean. Now, keep in mind, heroes are only as effective as the villain they are pitted against. Add to the mix an over-the-top performance by theatre pro Paul Giamatti (Man On The Moon), and you've now taken a C- movie and raised it to a B+. Giamatti is one of those guys you can't get enough of. Whereas a part like this would normally go to someone like Rob Schneider or Chris Kattan, Giamatti adds a level of believability neither of those sketch comedians could ever muster. By the time the film is over, you truly hate this character and somehow perversely enjoy seeing him pay for his evil ways. Finally, the icing on the cake comes in the form of top-notch supporting/cameo performances and comedic moments handled with care. Donald Faison (Clueless) is hilarious as the wronged limo driver, Frank. Amanda Detmer (The Majestic) is the perfect sympathetic ingénue, playing Wolf's abused assistant, Monty. Lee Majors (Six Million Dollar Man) is an absolute riot as the film's stunt coordinator. And even Jaleel "Don't Call Me Urkle" White (Family Matters) takes an exceptional turn at making fun of himself. The film is worth a second viewing just for the subtlety of these performance gems.
Okay, now you're asking yourself, what kind of foreign substance is this guy ingesting, right? In all sincerity, I realize this isn't Citizen Kane, or even Clerks for that matter. However, for what would normally pass as so-called family entertainment, this is more than several steps above. The kids will laugh at all the pratfalls and bodily-function jokes, but the adults will find themselves laughing out loud at these characters and their situations. Is that so wrong?
From a technical perspective, the 1.33:1 full frame transfer is incredibly disappointing. At least give us the option of having both formats to choose from. I'm still not buying the studios' "people hate to see the black bars" argument. Major suck points for this decision. However, the colors pop and the blacks are solid, so no argument there. From an audio perspective, the disc earns points back with a surprising Dolby 5.1 treatment. Not that it needs it, but it's great to hear this soundtrack with Chris Beck's raucous score and tunes like Smash Mouth's "Come On, Come On" and Jive Jones' "Me Myself and I" coming at you from all directions. Universal's perceived payback to the audience is a disc loaded with special features—whatever. As previously mentioned, take a few minutes and go through all of Amanda Bynes' shtick on the well-designed and entertaining menus. Then settle back and click through six extended/deleted scenes (smart cuts actually), a behind the scenes featurette (for the kids), two feature commentaries—a general one by Frankie Muniz (lots of dead air), and a more technical one from director Shawn Levy and cinematographer Jonathan Brown (bored now!), a quick cursor-driven tour of the Universal Hollywood backlot (location clips from the film—and this adds value how?), "Are You a Big Fat Liar?" interactive quiz (again, for the kids), and the obligatory theatrical trailers for Universal's current and upcoming kid-friendly releases. My advice—go through the additional footage yourself, then hand the remote to the kids and find something else to do.
Shout out to Robbins and company for realizing that family entertainment doesn't have to be dumbed down to the level of a five year-old. Pay particular attention to the work done by Amanda Bynes and Paul Giamatti—they'll be hard to miss, as they light up the screen whenever they're on camera. At $26.98, I'm going to have to go with a rental recommendation on this one unless you can find a previously viewed copy for less than $10.00. If the kids really love it, they can always put it on their Christmas list.
This court acquits Big Fat Liar on all charges and releases the film on its own recognizance. However, Universal Studios is hereby reprimanded for pulling a fast one on its audience with another schlocky full-frame presentation. Cut this crap out. We're not going to warn you again. This court now stands in recess.
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Scales of Justice
• Two Feature Commentaries: Actor Frankie Muniz, Director Shawn Levy and Cinematographer Jonathan Brown
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