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Laramie Movie Scope: Big Fat Liar

Funny teen comedy released on DVD

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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August 28, 2002 -- "Big Fat Liar," the surprisingly smart teen comedy that came out last year, is being released on DVD on September 24, 2002. We snared an advance copy of it and it has a pretty good package of features. This is a review of the DVD only. A review of the film itself can be seen by clicking on this link.

The best part of the DVD is the commentary track by director Shawn Levy and director of photography Jonathan Brown. This commentary is unusually informative and they do not overdo the praise of everyone connected with the film the way some of these commentaries do. This was Levy's first real movie and it is refreshing that he is still excited about it. He gets pumped up just seeing the Universal Studios logo at the beginning of the film. "It means it is a real film, a big film," he says. He also seems genuinely grateful for the performances he got from his lead actors, Frankie Muniz, Amanda Bynes and Paul Giamatti (who Levy went to college with).

The commentary reveals a lot of re-writing of the script during filming, and a lot of ad-libbing. Actor Donald Adeosun Faison, who plays the limo driver, apparently ad-libbed most of his lines. He also suggested that he star in the movie-within-a-movie, a suggestion that Levy kept in the film. Originally, that particular cameo role was written for Will Smith. Other changes included a major script alteration. Originally, the script called for Amanda Bynes' character to be a boy. The addition of Bynes improved the film a lot. The script was re-written to take advantage of her ability to alter her voice. In several scenes, she pretends to be other people on the phone. A credit on the film-within-a-film of Monty Kirkham is an amalgam of the names Kirkpatrick and Hamburg, two otherwise uncredited script re-writers, Levy said.

Levy also said that key grip John M. Hatchitt made a number of suggestions for camera set-ups and other ideas, all of which made it into the film. The biggest laugh in the film, the "little blue man" comment, was also ad-libbed, Levy said. Levy also mentioned some good suggestions he had gotten from some top Universal Studios brass. Levy said he was grateful for all the help he got from first assistant director, Joe Camp III, because of Camp's experience directing films. The film was also modified considerably after initial public screenings. Specifically, a number of scenes not involving the teen actors were cut because teen audiences lost interest in the film when teens were not on the screen. Levy said his philosophy on such decisions is that the best idea wins, regardless of whose idea it is. Of course, someone has to decide whose idea is best, and that decision usually falls to the director. It seems that Levy's style is more collaborative than some directors.

During Levy's commentary, he and DP Brown talk a lot about camera angles and techniques used in the film, from a crane shot, to numerous dolly shots, to numerous Steadicam (tm) shots to special rigs like cameras mounted under trucks and attached to bicycles. One track-mounted remote-controlled camera was mounted atop a car for a two-second shot used in the film. One five-minute tracking Steadicam shot, about half of which made it to the final cut, followed an escalating argument between Jaleel White and Giamatti. Levy also points out that horizontal motion camera motion was used in many of the shots of stationery actors, particularly after the action shifts from the Michigan to California. A lot of work went into some camera set ups that ended up lasting only a few seconds in the movie.

The opening scenes, filmed in Michigan, use less camera motion, subdued colors and available light, to set those scenes apart from the film's conclusion in Hollywood, according to Levy's commentary. The first shot, however, is a "snorkel" shot in which the camera pans along the floor and tracks its way like a cruise missile to Frankie Muniz. Levy explained he wanted to start the film off with a bang. The stamped title next to Muniz's face was ripped off from Steven Soderbergh's (one of Levy's idols) "Out of Sight." Labeling Muniz's character was an idea Levy got from the film's executive producer. Levy also credits many other films for techniques used in "Big Fat Liar," including Armageddon-like colors and pans for a control room scene. The idea behind all these crane shots, dolly shots and Steadicam shots are to try to make the film more of a visually-interesting, high-concept production that most teen movies, Levy said. That is also why there are a lot of movie in-jokes in the film to add more sophistication in the humor.

Much of the film was shot on the Universal Studio's famed back lot, using backdrops from the Old West street, the New York street, and even the house on the hill from Psycho. The prop room scene features famous props from movies like "Back to the Future," "E.T." and even Jim Carrey's famous Grinch suit. No one was allowed to touch the Grinch suit. One day the crew got into Spartacus Square to film on the set of "The Scorpion King." The crew did not have permission to film there, but did so anyway. One scene that everyone had fun filming was the wardrobe scene, a montage of Muniz and Bynes romping through the wardrobe department, trying on all kinds of costumes.

On Muniz' commentary track (separate from Levy's commentary), Muniz affirms the wardrobe montage was the scene where everyone had the most fun. In the director's commentary, Levy talks about how he enjoyed working with Lee Majors, who plays a stunt man in the movie. Clearly Majors was an idol for Levy when he was growing up watching Majors play "The Six Million Dollar Man." The overwhelming impression you get from the commentaries is how excited Muniz, Levy and Brown are by the whole experience of making their first big Hollywood film together. Levy also said that he likes DVD commentaries by directors and he thinks it is a good way for directors to communicate with each other.

Other features on the DVD include the usual "spotlight on location" featurette about the making of the film, deleted scenes, trivial challenge, Universal Studios Backlot interactive map, "Are You a Big Fat Liar" quiz, Spyro video game features, the theatrical trailer, production notes, cast and filmmakers, recommendations and DVD-Rom features. All of the menus feature Amanda Bynes (looking a foot taller than she did in the film). She looks uncomfortable, like she's waiting for someone. She says things like, "Go ahead and choose something!" and "I've got a life, you know." Sometimes menu items come rolling along and bump her out of the way. It is a good feature, but it makes you feel like you ought to hurry up and choose a menu item.

The main drawback of the DVD is that there is no widescreen option, only the 1.33:1 full screen image. This means that the full image you saw in the theater will not be on your TV screen when you view the DVD. You are going to lose some stuff on the edges. The dual-layer DVD includes English and French soundtracks in Dolby (tm) 5.1 surround and English in DTS 5.1 surround. English and Spanish subtitles are also available. All in all, it is a pretty good package. And it is also an entertaining family film. This DVD rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)