Wednesday 11 July 2012

The Big Something (2011)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Michael Coleman, Mina Mirkhah and Rob Edwards

With the third and final screening of The Detective's Lover, the second feature film from Running Wild Films and director Travis Mills, coming up at FilmBar in Phoenix on Thursday night, I felt it was about time that I got round to reviewing its predecessor, last year's The Big Something. I saw this on the big screen with a large crowd at the premiere at Tempe Pollack Cinemas and I thoroughly enjoyed its quirky charm. Sure, it probably cost less money to make than I have in my wallet right now but that didn't hurt the film, which was a pleasant riot of bizarre situations, outrageous characters and wild ideas, built more on a theme than a real plot and infused with an agreeably offbeat sense of humour. The lack of funding also meant that the music is all public domain but the result is the most enjoyable soundtrack I've heard, outside of perhaps only Léolo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? The only thing it didn't have was a dull moment.

What I can happily report is that it's just as fun on a second viewing. What surprised me is that it's just as fun in precisely the same ways as the first time through. Most films tend to get better or worse with foreknowledge of what's going to happen, not only because grand reveals and twists lose their potency but because repeat viewings usually either enhance the successes, emphasise the failures or do both at once. This is that rare creature, a film where it really doesn't matter how much you know or how often you watch, it just remains what it is. Its failings are just as obvious but they're also just as easy to overlook. Its successes are just as successful, without any hidden depths springing out to tap us on the shoulder but also without any new annoyances showing up either. Perhaps it's the fact that the plot, while overt, is really meaningless. Sure, it takes us places but they aren't usually the places characters expect to, or even want to, go.

You see, it wears its key influence proudly, in the title. There are many Big films out there, that will take you from The Big Blue to The Big Chill via The Big Easy, if only you can get past The Big Boss. However The Big Something is a riff on The Big Sleep, not just because it's a euphemism for death, which sparks this story, or because it's phrased as a mystery, as our hero investigates that death. It's because it's all about the journey not the destination, just like Humphrey Bogart found as Philip Marlowe in 1946. In that film, Marlowe was a hardboiled professional private dick; in this one, our investigator is a dim witted record store employee called Lewis. Yet both these characters follow the clues and pursue their resolution, without really having any idea what's important or what's true or even what's related to the investigation at hand. In both cases, pun not intended, they really just stir things up until the answer makes an appearance.

If The Big Sleep is the framework for this picture, the phrasing is more like Slacker. Mills, who co-wrote the story with Ryan Gaumont, doesn't go for a noir look or feel at all, instead beginning as a silent slapstick picture of all things. It's contemporary in tone and very southwestern in setting, with Lewis a small figure in big scenery as he walks to the record store he's been sleeping in for six months. In fact, once Lewis literally climbs into the story, from the roof into the crime scene below, the back room of the store with Marcus, his boss, dead on the floor, everything just floats around for a while with no particular place to go. Instead of a plot, we just enjoy the characters we meet: April, the bitch of a store manager; Melinda, the boss's widow who didn't really know him even though they talked each other to sleep every night; Det Quinn, a cop so lazy that he wears a Hawaiian shirt; even crazy Harlan, who tries to shoplift a record from the crime scene.
Michael Coleman doesn't look like a leading man, never mind one as iconic as Bogie (who gets namechecked twice, just to reiterate the connection), but he stakes his claim to dominance early with a spirited defence of Travis Tritt in the back of a black and white and a cheesy grin while validating his alibi. He's contagious because he's so nice. He's willing to talk to anyone, even a bum who handcuffs him by a dumpster and runs away, or April, who promptly fires him the day they reopen the store. He's also homeless, a refreshing situation for a leading man, though the film doesn't aim at the sort of political statement They Live did. He also stands up for others, as he does when Melinda, who lets him sleep on her couch, as much out of loneliness as kindness, starts to break from her loss. And it's here, 25 minutes in, that the story decides to start. Neither of them believe that Marcus killed himself and it's Lewis who decides to find out the truth.

And so we follow Lewis and April, strange partners to be sure, as they follow vague leads. Don't try to figure it all out before the last scene, not only because you won't but because it isn't that sort of movie. Lewis conjures ideas out of nowhere and runs with them; some of the clues could be classed as deus ex machinae if they ever really led anywhere. He takes little things that he hears and makes them much bigger or just writes them down on his hand in case they might turn into clues later. 'What does it mean?' April asks him at one point. 'I honestly have no idea,' he replies, and that's a good summary of their progress. He can't think anything through before acting on it; the shot where they follow a man in a wheelchair by car is one of the funniest things I've ever seen. Yet Lewis thinks he's making progress and who are we to say he isn't? He does have more luck than intellect, that's for sure. Gradually he blunders his way through the plot.

What I should emphasise is that this is actually a good thing, one of the film's many charms. That isn't to say that there aren't problems because there are a whole bunch, mostly because the budget, or rather the lack of it, can't be hidden. The sound is sometimes dubious, which doesn't help the naturally quiet voices of Sandy Kim and Reavis Dorsey. The camera movements aren't always as smooth as they could be. The lighting has issues outside at night. There are occasional glitches in the delivery of lines, as tends to be the case in microbudget pictures. The end result would certainly have been better had all these been fixed, but none are important in the long run. This is about a glorious off kilter feel, about a world a heartbeat out of whack from our own; and the more we pay attention, the more we wonder whether it's really our own and we've just been too caught up in ourselves to notice up until now.
Each of the many characters has their own moment in the spotlight, often quite a few of them, and each of the actors lives up to the challenge to add another quirky aspect to the mix. It's in each of these little moments that the film shines brightest and the biggest success that it has is that they never stop coming. The biggest standout has to be Rob Edwards as Murphy, the main character after Lewis and April, as he has more depth than either. Lewis isn't just a dim witted music fan and April isn't just a bitch, but we don't care too much about what else they might be. Murphy is half Hacksaw Jim Duggan and half batshit crazy brain fried bum; and he's magnetic from the glorious scenes where he handcuffs Lewis and follows him, in beautifully framed long shots. He gets great dialogue and others get great dialogue when talking to him. I've also seen Edwards recently but utterly failed to recognise him as the father in Shine Like Gold.

Dean Veglia is even more out there as Harlan and Michael Harrelson is great as Cliff, knowing yet vaguely suspicious. I've seen both in local short films but it's been a while. Sandy Kim has little to do as Melinda, though perhaps I lost track while trying not to look up her skirt. She looks great but it's way too short for her to be leaning back on a couch and expecting us to focus on whatever she's talking about. Scott Scheall is delightfully wrong as Det Quinn, a part that could easily have been much more substantial. Garry Myers, Reavis Dorsey and especially Eddie Jones all wring characterful moments out of precious little screen time. Kasim Aslam does too, though he's aided by what seems to be some magnificent improvisation from offscreen. Spencer Carey has so much fun doing an simultaneous impression of both Jason Mewes and Corey Feldman that he has trouble keeping a straight face. Yet Michael Coleman and Mina Mirkhah stay on top.

If the actors shine, even when hesitations slip in unwanted, it's partly because of the dialogue and situations that Mills and Gaumont gifted them with. Like Mel Brooks did in Blazing Saddles, they threw so many wild ideas at the wall that enough were always going to stick, and amazingly many of them came from real life. Apparently Mills based many of the characters on real people he met while working in a local record store, Zia's in Tempe. Is the Ed Sullivan fetish real or the croquet mallet torture? No, that's not what you think it is. I wonder also whether that's where he heard the music selected for the soundtrack. It's great old time stuff: ragtime, blues and boogie woogie. I don't care if it's used because it's free, every film should have some Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Jordan. It's live and kicking stuff that fits both the setting and the tone. This is the most uplifting murder mystery I've seen and I'd be happy to watch it again tonight.


Susan Rienzo said...

LOVED this movie and also found the second time was twice as nice! Great review!

Michael Harrelson said...

glad you enjoyed it!it was fun to shoot!