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Every thing I've read about The Big White has compared it to Fargo, an apparently superior film according to those who've seen both. I'm one of the few people left who haven't had the pleasure of Fargo (as soon as MGM puts out a non-dual-disc edition, I'll buy it), so this review might contain a little less bias than others, which I can only see as a good thing. My personal take on the matter is that people probably see Cohen brothers alumni Holly Hunter, Tim Blake Nelson, and snow and automatically call the film a rip-off of their beloved Fargo. Even one of my own friends called this film a poor man's Fargo. It's not that I'm discounting any other critic I've heard from on the film—I would never do that, especially to critics as wise and infallible as those who write for the web—I just think this film may have been unfairly branded as a rip-off, that's all.

The Big White

Feature


Robin Williams stars as the financially troubled Paul Barnell, a travel agent living in scenic Alaska with his mentally unhinged wife, Margaret. Paul finds a dead body in his dumpster at work, discarded by a couple of hitmen, and gets a wild idea: pass this corpse off as his long lost brother, Raymond, and cash in on his lucrative life insurance policy. To score his million, he'll have to deal with two hitmen turned kidnappers, the unexpected return of Raymond, and one determined hotshot insurance claims investigator.

I liked The Big White for being an entertaining and likable comedy. It's not laugh out loud funny, save for a scene with Williams involving a corpse and refrigerator, but if you like your comedy black, you'll find humour here. The picture teeters between the dark comedy of the insurance scam and the dramatic relationship troubles of both Robin William's travel agent and his nemesis, the claims investigator, played by the excellent Giovanni Ribisi. The combination of these makes for an entertaining film that, despite a predictable and weak plot, has a good heart at its centre.

I applaud the filmmakers of The Big White for telling a most unconventional story. At first glance, the travel agent is our good guy. We should want him to scam the insurance company for his million because he probably deserves it; he's a good person. Consequently, you would naturally assume his nemesis, the claims investigator, to be the dislikeable villain, but things aren't so simple. The investigator's stake in this claim pushes him to the edge of his sanity. He's the only one who sees Williams as a fraud, and this causes him trouble in both his professional and personal life. The investigator is also a good person, clever and very hard-working, and deserves to catch Williams. Therein lays the problem: I found myself rooting for both sides when one side cannot win unless the other loses. This clever device held my attention in a death-grip until the very end.

With a locale as beautiful and enormous as the Alaskan wilderness, you could only expect stunning cinematography, and director of photography James Glennon delivers. From the vast snow-capped mountains to the beautiful Aurora Borealis (although this might be a post-production add-in), The Big White was an easy film to look at. The inclusion of Alison Lohman in the ensemble cast further adds to this. It would be a crime towards the filmmakers for this film to be appreciated on a small screen. This was a picture made for large cinema screens, and it's a pity that it couldn't have seen more of them than it did.

The Big White
Speaking of ensemble cast, this is a great one. This picture is unquestionably held on the shoulders of these performers, and we have them to thank for it being so watchable. It's led by Robin Williams in a more straight-faced role than we've seen previously, although still delivering a fine performance. Opposing Williams is Giovanni Ribisi as the insurance claims investigator, a well-cast cat to William's mouse. Backing up Williams is Holly Hunter, playing crazy very well as his wife, Margaret. Ribisi is backed up by his psychic girlfriend played by the criminally beautiful Alison Lohman. William's long lost brother is performed by Woody Harrelson, who nails the part of idiot hick spot on. Rounding out the cast are the two hitmen who dumped the body in the dumpster in the first place, the always delightful Tim Blake Nelson and B-list hero W. Earl Adding.

Here's where a little bias might be present in my critique: the music of The Big White switches between a favourite band of mine, the Eels, and painfully underused composer, Mark Mothersbaugh. Mothersbaugh provides a string-centric score driven by pounding percussion, which serves as great narration during some of the dialogue-light/visually-heavy parts of the film. Without the Eels and Mothersbaugh's score, this would've been a very different film. I've cherished several of Mothersbaugh's scores, including wonderful The Life Aquatic and even the somewhat obscure Rugrats Movie, but this appears to be his best work yet

This is the first big movie effort from both director Mark Mylod and writer Collin Friesen, and not a bad first effort at all. I do think however, that both should thank their lucky stars that they were blessed with such an incredible cast, composer, and technical crew. If one element of The Big White were to have been done differently, if Robin Williams hadn't been cast, or the musical score altered, the entire tone could've been modified and a much poorer film would've been made.

In the end, I found The Big White to be a charming and quirky black comedy. It's not the best of its kind, but I'd grade it higher than six of the films currently (June 12th, 2006) in the box office's top ten. It's a shame this wasn't given a theatrical release, because there's certainly an audience for this picture. I can only hope it's given a warm welcome on DVD where others like myself will enjoy its oddball sense of humour.

The Big White

Video


Echo Bridge Entertainment serves up The Big White in its original 1:85:1 aspect ratio and this transfer satisfies. For a film with such high contrast, there's little to no grain present, and no artefacts whatsoever. My only complaint is that the video looks a tad soft when out in the open snow, but it's a minor complaint that only shows up near the beginning. A little extra sharpness would've been nice, but it's far from distracting. Good job, Echo Bridge.

Audio


I listened to the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track and was entirely satisfied. The audio of The Big White is mostly dialogue and music, with the occasional scene featuring a howling wind. For me, the highlight of the track was the score by Mark Mothersbaugh, filled with bass-heavy percussion beats. I could also hear dialogue very clearly. Aside from music, there isn't much else to warrant the Dolby Digital treatment... but when there's something to hear in The Big White, it sounds good.

Extras


First up is a fifteen minute featurette that takes us behind the scenes of The Big White during its production in Canada. The featurette has a great amount of on-set footage cut in-between interviews with Robin Williams, the director, and producer. Not as objective as a retrospective featurette, but not as lame as a promotional one, this is a light-hearted and fun insight into the film's production. There's also a photo gallery, which was of little interest to me.

Not every film put out on DVD calls for a massive two-disc set, chock full of supplemental materials, and The Big White is one of them that doesn't. I wouldn't have minded a director commentary, but its absence isn't too bothersome. The featurette shows us that this was both a fun and challenging film to make, and that's all the insight I much cared for. I also wouldn't have minded a blooper reel after having seen several funny unused takes in the featurette, but again, its absence doesn't make or break the disc. This can be the definitive release of The Big White on DVD, and I'll be wholly satisfied.

The Big White

Overall


Most films have to earn their way into my DVD collection and if they can't earn their way, they'd better be a sequel to something that has earned it's way to stay on my shelf. The Big White falls into the former category, for being an enjoyable and off-beat black-humored film. The treatment it's given on this disc is fitting, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to you if you're a fan of dark comedy, or any of the actors involved.


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