The Big Empty - Press Archive - Film Stew

 

Source: Film Stew
Dec 3, 2003

After reporting on everything from John Wayne Bobbit’s privates to a drunk
Captain Kangaroo, award-winning cameraman Steve Anderson makes his
feature film debut.

By Todd Gilchrist

The Big Empty takes place in a small town outside of Los Angeles - Baker,
to be precise - where everyone evidently is a kook, a weirdo or just plain
eccentric. While it hardly seems like a place anyone would want to stay for
longer than the span of a night, and only locked away safe in your motel
room at that, it’s a place that John Person (Jon Favreau) cannot escape.
Person is an actor (well, sort of), and has been enlisted to carry a suitcase
to the middle of the desert and deliver it to Cowboy (Sean Bean). The
trouble is, however, that he always seems to miss the rendezvous, and
ends up finding trouble - and lots of it - instead.

The Big Empty follows the same dusty trails as Oliver Stone’s U-Turn and
David Dobkin’s Clay Pigeons, both also about men trapped in inescapable
circumstances. Writer/director Steve Anderson’s directorial debut is similarly
trapped, in a plot that it cannot resolve without having either too big or too
small a denouement to satisfy the mainstream audience he hopes to capture,
or the indie crowd that gathers around quirky pictures like this one as if it
were a mini-2001: A Space Odyssey monolith.

But back to the weirdoes. In L.A., Person struggles with infrequent and
unsuccessful auditions. His cute across-the-hall neighbor Grace (Joey Lauren
Adams) is keen on him, but also understandably suspicious when their nutty,
neck-braced neighbor Neely (Bud Cort) makes him an offer he can’t refuse:
take a suitcase to the desert, and he’ll be paid a tidy sum of money to clear
out his mounting debts. Despite his reservations, John agrees and drives
out to Baker to make the delivery.

Unfortunately, John misses Cowboy and finds himself stuck in the one-horse
town with but a cast of bizarre locals to keep him company. There’s the motel
clerk Elron (Jon Gries), who buddies up to him but keeps fouling his rendezvous
plans; Stella (Daryl Hannah), a barkeep whose daughter Ruthie (Rachael
Leigh Cook) ain’t living unless she’s misbehaving; and Randy (Adam Beach),
Ruthie’s insane (and insanely jealous) boyfriend, who sees John as potential
competition. Before long, John receives word that Neely is dead, and that the
Cowboy is one foul-tempered S.O.B. who with every pass of their scheduled
meetings gets more angry, impatient, and possibly murderous.

The film is a textbook “hell” movie, one of those pictures where each
subsequent action aimed at resolving the entanglement of problems only
sucks in our feckless main character that much deeper. As our reluctant hero,
Favreau evokes shades of his younger self, the aspiring thespian navigating
the Hollywood social scene in Swingers, but one who has long since lost any
realistic perspective on his potential career. Now in his thirties, the dream of
an actor’s life is fading, and he faces down more debt than he can possibly
repay, with his main collateral consisting of a folding card table (when he’s
asked about his bed, he replies, “You know, I don’t need that”).

Favreau is an actor whose stock and trade is his consummate “averageness.”
Few actors have been more successful at painting the picture of an everyday
Joe the way he does time and again, be it in little pictures (Made) or in little
in big ones (Daredevil). He’s smart, but not too smart, knowing when to
answer a straight question and when to ignore the question altogether, and
brings life to the frustrating maelstrom of trouble that seems to intensify
with every turn or twist.

Without him, The Big Empty might never have been made, but with him,
even the film’s most ridiculous detours (especially the Area 51-UFO subplot)
carry a certain plausibility; Favreau shines his indignities on and perseveres,
and we can’t help but sympathize with him.

The remainder of the cast was no doubt selected for their relative marquee
value. Joey Lauren Adams still can’t act, but she figures in as the second
biggest “name” on this no-name debut (at least from the vantage point of
the indie circuit in which this film will no doubt circulate).

Rachael Leigh Cook wore out her eight-headed welcome five minutes after
She’s All That, and Bud Cort has apparently accepted that he will always be
known as Harold in Harold & Maude, and has given little concern to the nut
jobs he’s played subsequent to that career-defining role. Daryl Hannah lends
sensitivity to what must have been a job completed between weeks of shooting
Kill Bill, and ditto for Lord Of the Rings’ Sean Bean as Cowboy. Those must
have been a fun couple of late nights, working for Anderson for peanuts as
a reminder of the actor’s noble struggle between the multiplex and the art
house.

Nonetheless, The Big Empty is not an art house film. Small, definitely.
Independent, sure. But the film’s underwhelming slightness makes for a
Saturday matinee with the hordes, not a wine and cheese party at the
American Cinematheque. Still, it’s a very entertaining film, one that deserves
a spot next to the studio-fed crap that creeps into theatres for an undignified
death (surely this could have replaced a few screens of Duplex or Jeepers
Creepers 2).

Steve Anderson has crafted an impressive, well-photographed debut whose
only shortcoming is an ending that doesn’t quite live up to the story’s
potential pathos, or the whimsy of its curiously eccentric detours. The
director will no doubt find future directing gigs at a fast clip - the pacing
and storytelling is clear and compelling - but let’s hope for the sake of his
continued career that he learns to separate the acting from the aliens.

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