The Big White (2005) / Comedy-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong language and violence
Running Time: 98 min.

Cast: Robin Williams, Giovanni Ribisi, Holly Hunter, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, W. Earl Brown,
Director: Mark Mylod
Screenplay: Collin Friesen
Review published October 4, 2005

In many ways, The Big White is Fargo redux, as long as those ways aren't being funny, smart, or inspired.  However, it does take place in snow country, it has a dark and offbeat sense of humor, and at its heart, it's a crime thriller full of eccentric characters all trying to get away with something.  The trouble is that Fargo is a unique blend of comedy that the Coen Brothers are known for, and no one else has been able to adequately replicate it.  Not even the involvement of Coen Brothers vets like Holly Hunter (Raising Arizona) and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou) can sell it.  Longtime television director Mark Mylod (Ali G Indahouse) and first-time screenwriter Collin Friesen get the look and feel right, and certainly have a capable cast, but the laughs just aren't there, pure and simple.  In the comedy department, The Big White is as frigid and sparse as the Alaskan landscape it takes place in.

Robin Williams (Insomnia, One Hour Photo) stars as Paul Barnell, an Alaskan travel agent that is struggling to pay the bills, so desperate for money, that he claims his missing brother Raymond should be presumed dead, if only to collect on his life insurance.  Giovanni Ribisi (Flight of the Phoenix, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) is Ted, the insurance man assigned to the case, who promptly turns him down.  Down but not out, Barnell gets a bright idea when he finds a dead man in the dumpster outside his office -- he'll claim the body is his missing brother in an accidental death settlement which will net him a million dollars.  It's not so easy, as Ted is ruthlessly skeptical and tenaciously vigilant in proving Paul is scamming the insurance company, resulting in a test of wills that is only further compounded when the hit men responsible for the unknown cadaver want their body back.

Here's a rule of thumb that generally works: if it stars Robin Williams, and it is a comedy, it is a safe bet it's going to disappoint.  Williams is one of the funniest men alive, and yet, somehow movies have never played to his strengths as a comedic actor.  He is a very fine dramatic actor, though, but there's just little in The Big White that suggests they needed someone of his stature to play such an undemanding role, other than for the commercial appeal of a big name to attach to it. 

Holly Hunter (Little Black Book, Moonlight Mile) steals most of her scenes with a terrific performance as the Paul's wife, afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, although this is a comedic device that only offers spurts of vulgarity for the sake of having it, never really funny in a genuine way.  Harrelson (After the Sunset, She Hate Me) comes in late in the film, in another manic crackpot performance we've seen far too many times in his career.  In short, the creators are desperate to squeeze out any laugh they can get, but they only manage to squeeze the life out of it altogether.

Mylod must have thought that casting comedians and terrific character actors that excel at offbeat comedies would be enough to generate natural chemistry from ad-libs and hilarious interactions to make up for the fact that Friesen's script isn't quite funny enough on its own to nail it down.  Unfortunately for us, and for the fans of these actors, things rarely mesh well on any level, as the entire tone of the film is uneven throughout.  It takes a deft hand and genuine insight to make a successful black comedy, like the Coens, who have made a career gaining big laughs despite some very dark subject matter.  For a black comedy, The Big White lives up to its name by being completely devoid of dark moments meriting our laughs or our interest.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo