blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Big Picture (1989, Christopher Guest)

At its best, which isn’t often, The Big Picture is a vaguely charming Hollywood satire about young director Kevin Bacon discovering making it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But also not. Because Picture skips over Bacon’s “making it” period, other than being a dick to best friend Michael McKean and driving a Porsche instead of a quirky AMC Gremlin. The AMC Gremlin has a lot of personality onscreen; unfortunately, the film never makes it feel like Bacon’s car. But Bacon’s real success, working with soulless Hollywood producer J.T. Walsh and his gang… not on screen. We see the build-up to it, but not the actual scenes.

Then it’s just fall out.

I’m not sure where Picture’s at its worst. Probably when Bacon runs out on girlfriend Emily Longstreth to hook up with starlet Teri Hatcher, only to discover Hatcher’s got a boyfriend (something the film never addresses again), then comes home and forces Longstreth to break up with him. Unfortunately, Bacon’s already got a paper-thin character, so it makes him unlikable for a long stretch. His eventual redemption won’t even come from within; the film will bring out one of the more successful—though not really successful—big swing performances to facilitate it.

Blaming Picture on Bacon’s too easy, though. He’s just playing the role as written.

Most of the time, Big Picture’s a toothless, tepid, inconsistent, lackadaisical mess. The hopefully intentional anti-climactic third act should give the film a lot of character, but Picture doesn’t have the cameos for it. Instead, it’s a Hollywood satire where the best they could do is Eddie Albert and Elliot Gould for cameos. And Gould’s co-star Jason Gould’s dad; the film oddly doesn’t address nepotism. Though there’s a lot it doesn’t address. Longstreth’s not Hollywood, so she’s okay. Bacon’s fellow film student Jennifer Jason Leigh’s too avant-garde for mainstream, so she’s not Hollywood. But the other women are all pretty terrible. Hatcher’s an unthinking succubus, Tracy Brooks Swope’s a soulless studio exec-wannabe, Fran Drescher’s a greedy wife.

Thank goodness Longstreth’s an angel of redemption. She’s also way too good for how the movie treats her. For the first act, she’s an accessory to Bacon in his scenes. In the early second half, during their breakup, she shows some personality, but then she ingloriously exits so Bacon can complete his move to the Dark Side.

It’s unclear if Picture forgets its subplots and supporting cast members or if it just didn’t have the budget for them. It’s a Hollywood movie where they’ve got limited time on the lot.

Again, since Bacon’s just playing the part as written—an Ohio farm boy who can’t be expected to be responsible or accountable when fame and fortune are in grasp—it’s not really his fault. He’s not believable as a film school wunderkind who desperately wants to make a Bergman movie, mainly because Big Picture doesn’t acknowledge he’s trying to make a Bergman movie (without having any insight into the subject, which is a whole other thing).

Longstreth’s fine. The part doesn’t let her be good. She’s outstanding a few times, especially in the movie fantasies Bacon occasionally has to pad time. He’ll imagine he’s in a noir or something. Bacon’s clearly miscast in the scenes, and Longstreth’s great in the one she gets to play in.

Speaking of miscast… poor Walsh. He’s an obviously capable actor in a part he’s entirely wrong for. The script doesn’t help him either.

Don Franklin’s legit good as his flunky. It’s too bad he doesn’t get more.

McKean’s sort of around as Bacon’s conscious for a while. He and wife Kim Miyori are expecting their first child, providing a contrast to Bacon’s pursuit of Hollywood success. McKean—who co-wrote—is the best of the main cast.

Hatcher’s fine as the succubus. Not her fault she’s one-dimensional. The movie asks a lot of Leigh, and she delivers most of it, but it needs her to be a magician, and Picture frequently proves magic isn’t real. Hollywood or otherwise.

Guest’s direction is middling. He relies on David Nichtern’s not quirky enough score too much for personality. Then when movie music becomes a plot point, Nichtern’s score is an obvious missed meta opportunity. Ditto Jeffrey Sur’s competent but unimpressive photography (McKean’s a cinematographer trying to make it, and Bacon promises he’ll take him along to Hollywood).

Martin Short’s got an extended uncredited cameo as Bacon’s agent. He’s the best thing in the otherwise bland Picture.

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