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BIG FAT LIAR

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti, Amanda Bynes
Director:  Shawn Levy
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  September 24, 2002

“Take it from me, kid.  The truth…is overrated!”

Film ***  

What do you call Big Fat Liar when it isn’t offered in widescreen?  Big Skinny Liar?  More on that further down…

Big Fat Liar is one of the more pleasantly funny family film offerings I’ve seen in a while.  Two capable and likable young stars carry the story effortlessly, while one comedy veteran turns in one of his most manically memorable performances ever.

The young stars are television’s Frankie Muniz from Malcolm in the Middle, and Amanda Bynes from Nickelodeon.  They invest the script with humor, energy and chemistry, and they are the biggest reason the picture works.

The veteran is Paul Giamatti, who adds to his reputation as a comic actor with a delightfully over the top performance that may just bring you to tears with laughter.  He and his young co-stars make magic from start to finish.

Muniz plays 14 year old Jason Shepherd, a good kid with a fast tongue that tends to get him both into and out of trouble.  As the movie starts, it’s the former.  Failing to complete a creative writing assignment for his English class (and to come up with a viable excuse for it) may mean having to repeat the class in (gasp!) summer school.

Fortunately, he finishes his story on time.  Unfortunately, he accidentally meets up with ruthless Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (Giamatti), and Wolf ends up with his paper…and begins to turn Jason’s story into the most anticipated coming attraction of the year!  Poor Jason…with his reputation for lying, nobody believes his side of the tale…not even his parents!

There’s only one thing he can do to right the wrong and earn back the trust of those who no longer believe him.  With the help of his best friend Kaylee (Bynes), Jason sets off for Hollywood and Universal Studios in search of Marty.  He doesn’t want money, he doesn’t want story credit…he only wants Marty to confirm the truth to his mom and dad.  But the dastardly Marty refuses…and Jason has not yet begun to fight!

The film packs a winning energy that keeps you laughing, or at least smiling.  Jason and Kaylee take to their tasks like something out of Mission: Impossible with an arsenal of movie props and magic at their disposal.  Again, the chemistry of the stars win out.  Just a simple scene of them cutting loose in a costume and prop warehouse is a sheer delight!

Of course, there is a message to it all, and it’s no coincidence that by the time Marty and Jason decide that THEIR version of “Big Fat Liar” needs a moral, the Big Fat Liar we’re seeing learns it too.  And once clearly stated, it delves right back into the fun foray.  Ultimately, think of what Home Alone might have been with half a brain, and you’ve just about nailed it.

Frankie Muniz may be young, but he plays comedy with all the experience of a seasoned pro.  His sense of rhythm and timing is absolutely impeccable.  But fresh-faced Amanda Bynes is every bit his equal, never missing a beat as they bat the dialogue back and forth like a ping pong ball.  There may not be a sequel to this movie in the works, but even if not, I’d like to see more of them on screen together.  They have what it takes to be this generation’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, perhaps.

Big Fat Liar is a comedy triumph for the whole family…honest.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Mr. Muniz and Ms. Bynes aren’t the only TV stars to show up in this movie…keep an eye out for the likes of Dustin Diamond, Jaleel White and Lee Majors!

Video **

Big Fat Liar loses an extra * in this department for Universal’s atrocious decision not to issue this title in widescreen.  Framing seems slightly off from beginning to end…an otherwise impressive directorial effort from Shawn Levy has been reduced to something that looks like a film school project.  Colors are good throughout, and images are generally sharp and clear, though a light smattering of grain is noticeable from time to time…nothing distracting, just noteworthy.  I’ve been a big advocate of Universal’s efforts on DVD for several years now, but someone has to tell it like it is…no widescreen, no sale.

Audio ***

Surprisingly, the disc features both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks (adding DTS audio to a non-widescreen title is akin to putting a maraschino cherry on a turd).  Most of the film is dialogue oriented, but there are some comically action-oriented scenes that really open up the dynamic range and both front and rear stages.  The .1 channel kicks in during appropriate moments, and even gives the good song score a bit of extra punch.  Spoken words are always clear, and no noise disrupts the production.  High marks.

Features ****

Though not labeled a Collector’s Edition disc, Big Fat Liar comes close.  The extras begin with two good commentary tracks.  The first, by director Levy, is the more informative in terms of the what, who, when, and how details, while the second, by star Muniz, is more of a fun listen.  The young actor is a bit sparse once in a while, but he makes up for it with humor and energy, and seems to be having a great time recording the track.  I think the kids will even enjoy the listen.

There is also a short Spotlight on Location featurette with cast and crew interviews, about 15 minutes of deleted scenes, an interactive map of Universal Studios that takes you to respective scenes in the film with a click, some extras for the video game Spyro, production notes, talent files, a trivia game (that leads to a few outtakes), plus an original trailer.  Both it and the deleted scenes are shown in widescreen…hmmm…

As an added bonus, this disc boasts one of the best uses of menu screens of the year.  Star Amanda Bynes actually interacts with the selections and talks to you as you peruse them…you also get a quick preview of her new TV series on the WB network.  A nice touch!

Summary:

One of the categories in our annual DMC Awards is for Best Children’s/Family DVD.  Big Fat Liar would have probably gotten my vote this year for its amusing menu screens and terrific features, not to mention the quality of the movie itself.  But not offering the title in widescreen was a shameful decision, and diminishes the overall quality of the disc.  Truth be told, Big Fat Liar deserved a kinder hand from the folks at Universal.