The Big Picture and Pacing

It pains me to put any part of this film into the Mistakes Were Made category, especially because on paper The Big Picture has a lot going for it:

– It’s the directorial debut of Christopher Guest, one of the sharpest improvisers out there.

– It’s the story of a student filmmaker (Kevin Bacon) who makes a well received short film , is courted by a big studio, and slowly begins to compromise his artistic voice. What premise could be more ripe for deadpan satire?

– It features appearances from John Cleese, Jennifer Jason Leigh,  Michael Mckean, even Elliot fucking Gould! The same guy who’s face graces the banner photo of this blog.

And yet, in spite of all these positive elements, the entire film, to put it lightly, is a monumental disaster. I mean, I’m talking one of the most dull, unfunny, painfully slow films I’ve ever seen. The Big Picture has almost no redeeming qualities, and trust me, I wanted to love this movie. I gave it every chance and then some. Yet from the chintzy keyboard score, to the ham-handed sentimentality, to the complete absence of humor, or motivations, or conflict, or really any reason to keep watching, The Big Picture was very tough to sit through.

I’ve only walked out of two films in my life, Benchwarmers (an aggressively shoddy two hour long fart joke) and Deadgirl (a film about a of couple high school guys who like to have sex with a dead girl). And while The Big Picture isn’t nearly as crude or cynical as those two films, if I’d been in a theater I probably would have left. In fact, the story, the dialog, every single aspect of the film was so painfully bad that half way through I turned to my roommates and wondered aloud if perhaps it was all one long running joke. A film within a film. Maybe at the end they’d reveal that The Big Picture was all the work of some hack filmmaker and the joke was on us.

Alas, it was all real. Like back acne, small dogs in coats, or Donald Trump’s continued presence on major news networks… it was all uncomfortably real.

Take, for example, a small moment when Kevin Bacon’s character is coming out of a meeting on the studio lot. He runs into a sultry actress (Teri Hatcher) dressed in Lederhosen for a commercial she’s filming. After a minute of stilted dialog we cut away to one of his fantasies. In this fantasy Bacon is now also in Lederhosen. He proceeds to hump her, still fully clothed to what sounds like the Benny Hill theme composed by Duran Duran. This lasts thirty seconds and then we go back to their conversation. That’s it. That’s the scene.

But let’s narrow our focus and talk specifically about pacing. Regardless of The Big Picture’s other problems, it’s really the pacing, or lack thereof, that makes the film so hard to sit through.  In their conversations throughout the film the characters take a beat too long before responding. The Big Picture is on the opposite end of the spectrum as say Aaron Sorkin’s whiplash back and forths. It’s almost as if the actor’s were told to slow down their delivery so people at home could process every single word. But what ends up happening is that even when something witty is said it dies in the silence before the next character speaks. There’s a natural rhythm to human language and too often Guest is cutting to a static reaction shot in silence.

Watch this scene and you’ll get some sense of what I’m talking about. Martin Short can be very funny and his portrayal of a flippant agent is kind of smart. But none of the jokes really land because they float away in the surrounding emptiness. Yes, this scene is supposed to be kind of awkward and slow. But watch at the 33 second mark, Short leans in to look at Bacon’s eyes. We get an over the shoulder shot with Short’s head tilting in. Then a close up of Short looking at Bacon for a full seven seconds.. just to establish that Short is staring into Kevin Bacon’s eyes. That is an eternity to establish one simple movement.  And it happens over and over in every scene. There’s so much blank space in The Big Picture that the as an audience member I was becoming disengaged minute by minute.

The Big Picture is almost like a first cut. First cuts are always too slow and too long because the filmmaker is often still too close the material and doesn’t want to leave out any of the work done by the crew or actor. However, the audience is smart enough to intuit certain things and The Big Picture, unfortunately, treats us like children.



Random Notes:

– Whenever I write a poor review I can’t help but think about this classic bad review from Siskel and Ebert.

– There’re a lot of films from the 80’s with “Big” in the title. The Big Picture,The Big Easy, The Big Chill, …Big. I guess since it’s the 80’s it must have something to do with the Cold War.

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