OK, so the pre-teen film genre is unappetizing for most audiences for a variety of reasons. No, we’re not talking about a genre of children’s educational television that has quality and purpose. No, I’m talking about really bad “kids-show-up-the-adults” kind of films (take the somewhat watchable “Home Alone 3” as a good example). However, there is one out there that is actually funny in a way that should make older audiences want to watch it. The film is “Big Fat Liar” and starred two teen actors who were big at the time and one really funny adult actor who would go on to co-star in one of the most violent films ever made. Check out “Big Fat Liar” and I assure you that you’ll have some fun with it.
‘Big Fat Liar’
(2002; 88 minutes; rated PG; directed by Shawn Levy and starring Frankie Muniz, Amanda Bynes and Paul Giamatti)
HE’S BLUE, MAN, BUT THE GROUP DOESN’T LIKE HIM
(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion; cleaning up some typos; and adding and updating links on May 13, 2016.)
I enjoy a juvenile sense of humor (especially married to risqué comedy in films such as “Porky’s” – click here for my review) but I found I enjoyed a neat one for the pre-teen crowd when our children were younger: “Big Fat Liar.” It starred two very popular child actors from television and an adult actor giving a terrific performance when it shouldn’t be possible. “Big Fat Liar” came out in 2002 and I didn’t see it until it was on DVD. Still, today it rings as funny and it’s interesting how the young stars’ careers have evolved … as has the adult’s.
The two main “kid characters” in “Big Fat Liar” are Frankie (“Malcolm in the Middle”) Muniz and Amanda (“What a Girl Wants”) Bynes. Frankie is the smooth, funny guy who lies so quickly and efficiently that it has become second nature to him. Kind of a poor boy’s “Ferris Bueller.” Amanda is his best friend and a reluctant but willing and capable partner in his hijinks. The adult who rounds out this curious trio with a simply memorable performance is Paul Giamatti, who projects a grating sarcastic personality and you cannot wait to see what happens to him next.
In “Big Fat Liar,” Frankie, who plays “Jason Shepherd,” gets caught in a lie at school and must complete a creative writing assignment quickly. On his way to deliver the story he had written called “Big Fat Liar,” he gets a ride from Giamatti, who plays movie producer “Marty Wolf.” Giamatti is looking for his next big movie idea since he’s hit a dry spell and Frankie accidentally leaves the paper in the man’s limo. Of course the next thing you know Frankie’s trying to convince his teacher and parents that he lost the paper and, of course, they don’t believe him. Next he sees a movie trailer for the summer’s next big hit: “Big Fat Liar.” Now he tries to convince his parents that it is his stolen paper that is responsible for the movie.
From then on you have to suspend your disbelief. Frankie and Amada, who plays “Kaylee,” go out to Hollywood and begin to badger Giamatti and then turn up the heat to torment. They live in a costume warehouse on the Universal lot (this allows the rest of the film to be easy to make) and carry out their attacks until they win in the end, he’s now a hero in his parents’ eyes and HIS movie comes to the big screen. Of course, that’s every youngster’s fantasy at the pre-teen level.
“Big Fat Liar” does some stereotypical pranks well (take the superglue on the cell phone earpiece) but two do stand out: putting blue dye in Giamatti’s pool and they reprogram his car’s electrical and computer systems. Both are funny and work surprisingly well – the pool for its visual acuity and the computer system being a bit ahead of its time.
For all its flaws – it has to meet its target audience’s expectations of kids triumphing over adults – “Big Fat Liar” offers a bigger picture of decent acting and work by a nice group of recognizable supporting actors (a couple you recognize now, but not then).
So, here goes with the top of the primary cast:
- He’s a Golden Globe nominee (for his TV show; not this film) and Frankie pretty much does an over-the-top kid here as much as he does in his signature TV show “Malcolm in the Middle.” He plays a 14-year-old (he was 16 during filming) and delivers his lines with aplomb and confidence. He was perfectly cast in this one and plays wonderfully to the camera. “Big Fat Liar” was released two years into “Malcolm’s” run and Muniz would go on to also do “Agent Cody Banks” the next year. He continues to work, but you most likely haven’t seen anything of his and probably won’t with his latest – “Hot Bath an’ a Stiff Drink 2” that is now in post-production.
- Amanda is cute and perky and does a … well, cute and perky turn here as “Kaylee” (no last name). In her first motion picture, Amanda improvises well and plays a pretty neat sidekick to the headline star. It’s tough working with this kind of material, but she does a commendable job with it. Amanda, who was 15 during filming, is in her first film here and is best known for TV roles on “The Amanda Show” and “All That” and has also been in films including “What a Girl Wants” and was especially good in the remake of “Hairspray” as “Penny Pingleton.” Amanda has also had to deal with challenges in her life after becoming an adult and has been more in the tabloids for them rather than her acting career.
- Although Frankie and Amanda (should they have done a beach movie?) are good, the real star here is Giamatti. He’s loud; he’s arrogant; he’s egotistical; and he’s obnoxious. Best yet, Giamatti completes an almost perfect job in the role: he does it all from his expressions to his voice and to his body that almost quivers with pent-up energy. His best scenes are after the kids have put dye in his pool and he turns blue (and add in some orange shampoo). It’s truly funny to watch a blue man blaze through Hollywood. Giamatti is a very serious actor who was nominated for an Oscar for “Cinderella Man” and won critical acclaim for his work in the Oscar Best Picture nominee “Sideways” with Thomas Hayden Church. He’s also been in “Saving Private Ryan” and also as the leader of a bunch of killers in the excessively violent “Shoot ‘Em Up” – it has 151 killings and is the 28th ranked film for body count by one internet website.
Here’s a look at the list of actors and their characters that help Frankie and Amanda put a beat-down on Giamatti:
- Amanda Detmer plays Giamatti assistant “Monty Kirkham.” Detmer is good at her job although she’s constantly bombarded with irritating requests from Giamatti. She does good work here in the same vein as Amanda and she has also been in “You, Me and Dupree” and “Saving Silverman.”
- Jaleel White, who was the iconic “Urkel” in TV’s “Family Matters,” plays himself (that is Jaleel White) and Giamatti likes to sarcastically call him “Urkel.” White does a good job by not flinching when he mentions that “TV money” pays for his expensive car. White has done a bunch of TV work (including “Psych”) as well as the film “Dreamgirls.”
- Donald Faison, who plays limo driver and aspiring actor “Frank Jackson,” isn’t as good as he was in TV’s “Scrubs,” but is effective here by delivering a somewhat polished effort in the face of a kids’ film. He has also been in “Remember the Titans” and “Clueless.”
- Lee Majors plays “Vince,” who is the aging stunt coordinator who bears old-age jokes from Giamatti but gets his revenge by doing a parachute jump with the little weasel. Majors, who was TV’s “The Six Million Dollar Man,” is smooth here for the part he had to work with (not much) and has also been in dozens of TV shows.
- John Cho plays “Dustin ‘Dusty’ Wong” and is the director of Giamatti’s movie. Cho is most famously “Harold” of the “Harold & Kumar” doper films (click here to read my review of “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay”) but, like Majors, doesn’t have much to work with here. It’s nice to see him, but he’s better with “Kumar.” Cho has also played “Sulu” in the “Star Trek” remake as well being in “American Beauty” and “American Pie” and its first sequel (click here for my take on film franchises such as “American Pie”).
- Golden Globe winner Sandra Oh, who was with Giamatti in “Sideways,” plays teacher “Phyllis Caldwell.” Again, it’s a small part but she does it well with solid delivery. She has also been in “Under the Tuscan Sun” and TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Big Fat Liar” was the 52nd rated film at the U.S. box office in 2002 with $48.3 million in ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo. Worldwide the film brought in $52.9 million on its budget of $15 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Spider-Man” with $403.7 million. The only other film from 2002 that I have reviewed is another “Big” film: the absolutely hilarious and mostly forgotten “Big Trouble” with Tim Allen, Rene Russo and a tremendously funny supporting cast – click here for my review.
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- Muniz is one of Hollywood’s micro-men as he stands only 5-foot-5 today. Bynes today is three inches taller and back then he could just look over her shoulder and he is a year older. He and Johnny (“The Big Bang Theory” – click here to read my review of the series) Galecki would see eye-to-eye today since they are the same height.
- Giamatti said the blue dye was easy to apply and for the most part to take off – except for his feet. He is quoted as saying his feet had a blue tinge for several months after filming.
- Here’s another casting miscue avoided here: Lindsay Lohan was originally scheduled to play “Kaylee” but she dropped out to take a hiatus from acting and was replaced by Amanda. Thank you, Lindsay. Amanda did better here than you ever could. Unfortunately both could have done a better job of not living life through the tabloids in the years after “Big Fat Liar.”
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “When Marty calls Monty after he leaves the kids birthday party, Norman Bates’ house (Psycho, Bates Motel) is in the background behind Monty.”
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