MVD Marquee Collection: The Big White (2005) - Reviewed

Stock trade television director Mark Mylod is best known for his efforts on Game of Thrones, Shameless and is currently at work on the new reboot of Amazing Stories.  But somewhere in the twenty-something years span of his television career, he managed to crank out a couple offbeat comedy feature films, first with the Sacha Baron Cohen TV movie vehicle Ali G Indahouse before following it up three years later with the derivative but engaging Fargo knockoff The Big White.  Starring Robin Williams in a role that reportedly reignited his drinking habit after twenty years of sobriety, the Alaskan-set quirky caper comedy of sorts is clearly following in the footsteps of the Coen Brothers but still manages to provide enough scenic beauty of the wintry terrain and entertainment value to make the nourish comedic knockoff worth your while.

Travel agent Paul Barnell (Robin Williams) is facing hard times, nearing bankruptcy while caring for his Tourette’s-Syndrome afflicted wife Margaret (Holly Hunter) in a role that generates more awkward laughter than anything else.  Paul’s prospects seem dire, until one day he stumbles upon a dead body in a trash dumpster.  On the cusp of phoning the police, Paul decides to pass off the body as that of his long lost brother Raymond (Woody Harrelson) to collect on an insurance scam.  That is, until the hit men show up looking for the body before demanding Paul retrieve it or they off his kidnapped wife, setting in motion a chain of unfortunate events including but not limited to double-crossing, a scheming insurance adjuster keen on discrediting the claim and a throwaway story thread involving an at-home psychic hotline.

Clearly capitalizing on the success of the Coen Brothers’ timeless classic, The Big White tends to play like a collection of leftover parts from other more successful movies, but the performances by Williams and in particular Holly Hunter are charming and make the proceedings consistently funny.  Special attention goes to Giovanni Ribisi as the hapless insurance adjuster who continues to break every employee rule in getting to the bottom of Paul Barnell’s scam.  Alison Lohman unfortunately gets tossed into the thankless role of the psychic but others like Tim Blake Nelson as one of the hitmen fare better, notably when he starts inquiring how much the kidnapped Margaret likes his cooking.

Visually the film looks splendid, taking full advantage of the mountainous Alaskan tundra, lensed handsomely by industry veteran James Glennon (Flight of the Navigator).  Prominently featured (and perhaps going overboard) on the soundtrack is Devo frontman and Wes Anderson regular Mark Mothersbaugh, whose eclectic musical score sounds lifted right out of, say, Fantastic Mr. Fox or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.  At times the score can be gratingly twee but for the most part does a good job of offsetting the darker comedic elements of the story, taking the edge off if you will.

Fargo fans will likely be annoyed by just how much The Big White deliberately looms in its shadow, but this darkly comic caper comedy will nevertheless grab your attention for the duration of its running time.  If nothing else, it’s a chance to see the Alaskan locale on camera and provides an entertaining ride for viewers eager to see how a moneymaking scheme such as this can quickly go from bad to worse.  Yes it feels very contrived but the performances, setting and original score keep this quirky misadventure just on our side of the tracks.

--Andrew Kotwicki