Judging by the critical drubbing and infinitesimal blip that The Big White attracted upon its theatrical release late last year, it would be easy to conclude that the film is about as entertaining as the kind that coats teeth the morning after a tequila binge.
So when I tell you that this black comedy is actually a pleasant diversion, don't misinterpret my words as being a solid endorsement. The Big White is no masterpiece, but it's not worthless, either. As it is, the movie suffers from superficial similarities to the Coen brothers' Fargo (a wintry location, an ill-conceived caper, a strangely endearing funereal tone), which only serves to point out how this Mark Mylod-directed film can't hold the proverbial candle to that 1996 classic.
OK, so The Big White is nowhere as artistically successful as Fargo – or, for that matter, The Ice Harvest, Prizzi's Honor and scores of other black-hearted comedies (although I'll say this much – the movie is better than Weekend at Bernie's, if that means anything). But is there anything to redeem it? Why, yes, I believe there is.
Robin Williams gives an uncharacteristically subtle performance as Paul Barnell, the owner of a failing travel agency in small-town Alaska. With his doleful eyes and deeply lined face, Paul is a man on the edge of the abyss, teetering on bankruptcy and desperately needing money so that his profanity-spewing, mentally unstable wife (Holly Hunter) can receive treatment for what she believes is Tourette's Syndrome.
And so it goes. Paul tries collecting on the $1 million life insurance policy of his no-good brother (Woody Harrelson), who's been estranged from the family for five years, but he is quickly shut down. As the insurance company official explains, Alaskan state law specifies that a person must be missing for at least seven years before he or she is presumed dead.
Then opportunity arrives in the form of a dead body that Paul discovers in the dumpster outside his travel agency. He takes the corpse home and stores it in the refrigerator in his garage. With the help of some hastily made ID cards and strategically placed frozen meat, Paul makes it appear that dear ol' Ray has been eaten by wolves while out hiking.
But you know what they say about best-laid plans. It turns out that the would-be Ray Barnell was the victim of two hit men (Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown) who now want the body back. A straight-arrow insurance investigator named Ted (Giovanni Ribisi) smells something fishy about Paul's story. And even the very-much-alive Ray Barnell shows up after he comes across a USA Today story about his own death.
Mylod's work is a mixed bag. Collaborating with a gifted cinematographer in James Glennon, the director reveals a keen eye for the beauty of desolation. Unfortunately, his feel for tone and pacing is decidedly uneven.
A first-rate cast helps considerably. Hunter adds sparkle to a woefully ill-conceived part. Ribisi adds shades of ambivalence to Ted, elevating the character from the realm of cardboard cutout. Williams is excellent, too, no small feat for an actor who often makes Carrot Top look nuanced by comparison. Both Williams and Ribisi bring some much-needed emotional resonance to a tale that, at its heart, is about the sacrifices that men make for the women they love.
Despite all the ingredients for a wicked black comedy, The Big White just sort of limps along without ever gaining traction. Collin Friesen's overly broad screenplay strains itself trying to be quirky, shoehorning in some disparate elements -- a psychic hotline here, a hyper Yorkshire terrier there -- in hopes that something tickles a funnybone. And that's where The Big White really stumbles. It's a comedy with precious few laughs.
Shown in 1.85:1 widescreen, the picture is sharp and clear, although some minor edge enhancement appears in at least one early scene. Several scenes have a slightly washed-out feel that is evidently by design.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 is adequate if not particularly creative. The audio is dialogue-driven, and the dialogue is easily understandable, so that's enough. The filmmakers earn kudos for the inclusion of three terrific songs by the alt-rock band, the Eels.
A 15-minute featurette, The Big White: An Adventure in Filmmaking, chronicles the movie shoot in Canada, interspersed with interviews of Williams, Ribisi, Mylod and co-producer Christopher Eberts. The piece is moderately interesting.
The DVD also includes a lame photo gallery.
In the final analysis, The Big White is more watchable than it is funny. Granted, that can mean the death knell for a comedy, but this unfairly maligned flick is off-kilter enough to warrant a look for moviegoers who like their humor on the dark side.