Big Fat Liar (2001)

2001, Universal. Directed by Shawn Levy. Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti, Amanda Bynes, Amanda Detmer, Donald Faison, Lee Majors, Jaleel White.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C-
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -2
Age
Appropriateness
?Teens & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?A-II

Content advisory: Recurring humorous depiction of lying, theft, trespassing, vandalism, etc., mostly directed at the film’s antagonist; a few scenes of comedic violence and property damage; some crude language.

By Steven D. Greydanus

Big Fat Liar wants to be a family-friendly comedy with a message. It can’t quite work itself up to affirm that Lying is Bad, but it proclaims with great conviction that The Truth Isn’t Overrated. (Yes, those words really appear in the film — several times, with increasing emphasis, as if they were very telling.)

On the strength of that underwhelming moral message, Big Fat Liar asks us to overlook all the lying, stealing, vandalism, and other rollicking hijinks perpetrated by the hero in order to show his parents that he really is worthy of their trust and respect after all.

In the end, when the parents realize all their son went through to win their trust, they can’t help but be proud of him. Another touching Hallmark moment brought to you by a Hollywood committee, none of whom has any children or parents of their own, or knows anyone who does.

Big Fat Liar is the story of a kid who’s a Big Fat Liar, who writes a school paper titled "Big Fat Liar," which falls into the hands of a Hollywood producer who’s a Big Fat Liar, who steals the kid’s story and makes it into a movie called… well, you know.

The kid (Frankie Muniz of TV’s "Malcolm in the Middle") is named Jason Shepherd. The producer (Paul Giamatti, The Negotiator) is named Marty Wolf. Wolf and Shepherd boy, get it? "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"?

As you might expect, this Shepherd boy has such a history of frequent and colorful lies that, when he claims a Wolf stole his homework, neither his teacher nor his parents believe him, even though this time there really is a Wolf.

Maybe Jason has been disbelieved before. Maybe it didn’t bother him when he was lying anyway. But this is different: "If you saw the way my dad looked at me…" he tries to explain to his platonic girlfriend Kaylee (Amanda Bynes, "The Amanda Show"). "It was like, I don’t know, like I wasn’t his kid any more."

That’s why, in order to set things right and win his parents’ trust and respect again, Jason has to convince his parents he’s safely at home while he and Kaylee actually:

  • fly to Hollywood together (Kaylee’s meant to be staying with her grandmother, but Jason convinces a local jock to impersonate Kaylee at the grandmother’s house — by offering to do his homework for him);
  • impersonate fur magnates in order to commandeer a limo;
  • penetrate the security at Universal Studios, where Wolf works;
  • tell Wolf’s receptionist one whopper after another in order to get in to see Wolf;
  • steal Wolf’s digital day-timer;
  • break into a studio backlot warehouse and live there for days;
  • commit numerous other acts of deception, impersonation, vandalism, trespassing, and some rather remote forms of aggravated assault, resulting in such things as missed appointments, the destruction of a car, and a kind of temporary disfigurement;
  • orchestrate a complicated operation that involves, among other things, forcing Wolf to jump out of a moving car in the desert and out of a flying helicopter holding onto Lee Majors and one parachute; and finally
  • completely ruin the career of a man who admittedly shouldn’t ever have been allowed to have any power that could in any way affect the fate of other human beings or the shape of popular culture.

Big Fat Liar wants to be this year’s Spy Kids, but it’s actually more of a cross between an older-set Home Alone and a younger-set Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But where Ferris Bueller wanted to be a cheerfully anarchic teen movie, and was, Liar wants to be a wholesome family film, and isn’t. Kids young enough to find it hilarious are too young for its moral glibness, and kids old enough to see through its shallowness are old enough to see through the rest of it too.

All of which is not to say that it’s bad, exactly. The film has some laugh-out-loud funny moments, mostly involving Wolf suffering richly deserved pranks at the hands of Jason and Kaylee. As Wolf, Paul Giamatti brings a sort of Wile E. Coyote quality to each catastrophe, and, while there may not be anything intrinsically humorous about, for example, dyeing someone’s skin bright blue, Liar comes up with some genuinely funny complications as a result of it happening to Wolf.

As the movie goes on, piling absurdity upon absurdity, it becomes an increasingly obvious fantasy, at least as implausible as Home Alone, but without the whimsy or eye candy of Spy Kids. The Universal Studios backlot looks like a comic-book version of a studio backlot, with Roman soldiers, astronauts, and 17th-century gentlemen milling about amid huge unlocked warehouses full of costumes and props where one can live undetected for days. There’s no end to what Jason and Kaylee can accomplish, and no adult unwilling to become their co-conspirators against the despicable Wolf.

The film has been called a revenge fantasy, but what Jason and Kaylee are doing isn’t really revenge (at least not for them, though it may be for the grown-ups who help them). More like torture, really. The kids torture Wolf to try to force him to tell the truth about "Big Fat Liar" — not because Jason wants money, but only so his parents will believe him.

Muniz and Bynes are fine as the likable protagonists, and fans of their TV shows may enjoy their roles here. I wonder, though, how plausible it is that there’s no hint of romantic tension between them. I’m the last person in the world to fault a movie for not pairing up characters romantically, but really — they’re adolescents, they’re attractive, they like each other, and they’re on their own together living in secret in a fantastic hideaway. In one scene where they try on costumes for fun, they must be dressing and undressing dozens of times. Nothing happens? That may be the most far-fetched thing in the film.

Have I mentioned that lying is wrong? See the article on the Eighth Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for more information.

Tags: Spy Kids Stuff, Adventure, Comedy, Family

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