Today I’m looking at “The Big Fix.” No, it’s not the 2012 documentary about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (which has the misfortune of being associated with the talentless and self-important Tim Robbins) or the 1947 movie about basketball cheating. Nor is it about the 2013 television series or a number of TV show episodes of the same title. No … think way back to 1978 and a young(ish) Richard Dreyfuss in the year he won an Oscar for his work the year before in “The Goodbye Girl.” It’s a film that tries to blend wit and social consciousness with a detective story. It doesn’t quite work out, but you’ll enjoy looking back at this one. You can catch “The Big Fix,” as I did recently, on cable movie channels.
‘The Big Fix’
(1978; 108 minutes; rated R; directed by Jeremy Paul Kagen and starring Richard Dreyfuss, Susan Ansbach, Bonnie Bedelia and F. Murray Abraham)
A DIFFERENT STORY EVERY TIME ABOUT HIS CAST
(NOTE: I expanded this review with additional opinion, some more trivia and the updating of links on May 5, 2018.)
“The Big Fix” is a somewhat disjointed film. It tries to be funny (and is); it tries to make a social statement (and does); and in the end it tells a story (very well). However, the first two components together drag down the last, since each alone would have been better served as its own film.
“The Big Fix” is the story of Richard Dreyfuss’ “Moses Wine,” who is a somewhat burned out activist from the 1960s who’s working as a private eye on pedestrian cases such as divorces and process serving. He’s called in by a political campaign to try to find out who is trying it smear it with association with an Abby Hoffman-type activist who remains a fugitive nearly a decade after the radical movement fizzled.
Therein you find the rub. It’s funny at times; its social message is there (but a bit forced and looking a bit aged after three decades); and the story is actually intricate and well-plotted and executed. “The Big Fix” has a neat character twist and excellent work by the impressively strong cast, but wasn’t the blockbuster it could have been or the well-remembered film it should have been. So, what’s wrong? My only observation is that each component, no matter how well executed, each detracts from the other.
If you just take the politics, it is good: there’s an after-’60s radical tint to a late 1970s political campaign; a swipe at the politics of the elderly through the sharp tongue of Dreyfuss’ aunt; and the vacant stupidity of the “finding yourself” self-awareness silliness of the ’70s. Bring in the Hoffman-like figure and there’s a neat way to look (then) at the near past. A lot of promise here that just comes off a bit dated today and, as I recall when seeing it for the first time in the theater, a bit forced at the time.
If you just take the comedy, it is low-key excellent. Dreyfuss has an ongoing joke about what caused his cast – he uses each explanation to benefit each situation (such as saying to a radical lawyer that he tried to stop two cops from beating up a black kid or to group of Latinos that he was trying to stop border patrol agents from hassling his friend).
If you take the story, it is solid. It has a straightforward plot that takes neat, intelligent turns (such as what the once-radical “Howard Eppis” had become) and has a nice twist with a character you thought might be a bit shady but couldn’t figure out why. The story develops well and presented without insulting anyone’s intelligence.
Finally, it has the somewhat controversial use of marijuana on screen by Dreyfuss (after all, it was the 1970s).
In the end, Dreyfuss uses his radical experience and contacts to solve the case and the loose ends are tied up (you even find out how he broke his arm in the first place – and there was actually a clue early in the film).
So, why not better than it is? I cannot say for sure … but I’m sure it isn’t any kind of classic or even a cult classic. It’s a good film; a solid film. But in the end it isn’t a great film.
Here’s a quick rundown of part of the cast (**NOTE – SPOILER ALERT in a cast description**):
- An Oscar winner and nominee (not for this one), Dreyfuss is near his funny, quirky best here as “Moses Wine.” He needs to be a bit tougher late in the film and he isn’t the actor for such a role, but that small letdown doesn’t detract much from his work here. At the time of “The Big Fix,” Dreyfuss had done outstanding work in the blockbusters “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” (that’s two films with a total of three Oscars and six other nominations) and he won his statue for “The Goodbye Girl” and was nominated for “ Holland’s Opus.” He was also memorable in “What About Bob?” and other films in a career that I won’t even attempt to outline any more of a CV.
- Susan Anspach plays former Dreyfuss girlfriend “Lila Shea” and is the ostensible co-star here, but she exits early. Anspach does a decent job but doesn’t distinguish herself. She was also in “Five Easy Pieces” as well as “Play it Again, Sam.” Anspach died in April 2018 at 75 of coronary failure.
- A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Bonnie Bedelia plays Dreyfuss’ former wife “Suzanne” and she’s planning on getting “BEST” training in a wonderful mocking of the vapid EST of all those decades ago. Bedelia does a good job in a somewhat small role, but she would do much better in her tremendous and nominated effort in the drag racing classic “Heart Like a Wheel” and the original “Die Hard” (she didn’t do as good a job in the sequel – click here for my review of the original).
- It’s my opinion that Oscar winner (not for this one) F. Murray Abraham gives the best performance in the film as “Howard Eppis.” The one-time radical turns out to have evolved into a successful public relations and marketing executive – tremendous irony, right? He has a small part, but he is impressive, intelligent and energetic in a brief but emotional performance. Abraham won his Oscar and a Golden Globe for “Amadeus” and has also been in “Scarface” – you last see him being hanged from a helicopter – and in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and TV’s “Homeland.”
- ** SPOILER ALERT ** A young(ish) John Lithgow is in only his third movie here and is every bit as effective as political campaign manager “Sam Sebastian.” A future two-time Oscar nominee, he is smooth, mostly confident and just a bit shady – and that’s because he isn’t “Sam,” he’s really the son of the bad guy here and the spider at the center of the web that intended to bring down his father. Lithgow has been on the quirky TV show “3rd Rock from the Sun” and got a nomination for the film “The World According to Garp” and another for the overrated snifflebag called “Terms of Endearment.” I also liked him in his very small role in “All that Jazz” (click here for my review).
- A Primetime Emmy nominee, Ron Rifkin plays the smarmy BEST trainer involved with Dreyfuss’ ex-wife and does a very solid job with a tiny role. He’s certainly not as good as he would be in “A. Confidential” (click here for my review) or “Boiler Room” (click here for my review). Rifkin was nominated for his work on “American Masters.”
The only other supporting cast members of note are Andrew Bloch and Kathryn Grody who play imprisoned radicals “Michael and Wendy Linker” and Nicholas Coster who plays radical attorney and law professor “Nick Spitzler.” Coster, who is a former soap opera actor with a prolific TV career, is energetic and convincing in a small role. Both Bloch and Grody make the absolute most out of a tiny amount of screen time.
“The Big Fix” didn’t crack the top 10 films of the year in 1978. A casual look on Wiki and IMDb.com doesn’t turn up its box office total for the year, but the No. 1 film was “Grease” with $159.9 million, while the No. 10 film was the nearly perfect “The Deer Hunter” with $48.9 million. Other films from that year that I have reviewed are:
- “Brass Target” (OK drama) – click here for my review
- “The Boys from Brazil” (solid) – click here for my review
- “California Suite” (excellent drama) – click here for my review
- “Corvette Summer” (really, really putrid) – click here for my review
- “Damien: Omen II” (good horror sequel) – click here for my review
- “Every Which Way But Loose” (bad Clint) – click here for my review
- “Grease” (classic musical) – click here for my review
- “Foul Play” (great comedy) – click here for my review
- “Halloween” (outstanding horror) – click here for my review
- “Hooper” (Burt’s best in my view) – click here for my review
- “Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” (great) – click here for my review
- “The Wild Geese” (terrible) – click here for my review
Assorted cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- “The Big Fix” was Mandy Patinkin’s first film role. He plays an incompetent and somewhat befuddled pool cleaner.
- Directly from IMDb.com: Richard Dreyfuss broke his wrist just before shooting was to begin. Rather than delay shooting they worked his cast into the script.
- IMDb.com reports that this was David Rowlands‘s only movie which was not directed by either his brother-in-law John Cassavetes or his nephew Nick Cassavetes. I’d be a liar if I said anything other than I don’t remember David Rowlands and had to look in the cast list to find his character – “Jonah,” who, I recall, was a hitman. From his name you might deduce that he was the brother of accomplished actor Gena Rowlands (and you’d be correct … the Cassavetes angle is the giveaway) and he died at 74 in 2000.
- Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “This film is the last entry in director Jeremy Paul Kagan’s trilogy about the aftermath of the 1960s and 1970s malaise after a particularly volatile historical period. The other two in the trilogy were Katherine (1975) and Heroes (1977).” My note: “Heroes” is a great but almost forgotten film with “Happy Days’” Henry Winkler. I haven’t had a chance to see it again in decades … but I’ll review it when I do.
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