jThe Big Empty (2003) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Although Donnie Darko is about to be re-released to theaters as I write this, its dismal performance in the original theatrical release is a bad sign for makers of offbeat independent films. The market is for that kind of film is obviously very small, and that means such films will not be financed by any significant amounts of money, because the potential for return is small. Because of the financial angle, the whole market for wildly original stuff seems to belong to the zero budget guys with their unknown acting troupes.

Producer (and star) Jon Favreau and some of his friends tried to do something about that situation with their strange comedy The Big Empty, which I can only describe as Donnie Darko meets The Big Lebowski, if you can imagine such a thing. They assembled a truly eccentric film with established actors like Kelsey Grammer and Sean Bean and Daryl Hannah, and some pretty solid production values. It has a slick Hollywood veneer, but the soul of an indy.

Favreau stars as a failed and debt-ridden actor whose possessions have been whittled down to a card table, a lamp, a telephone, five glossy pictures of himself, and some pens and paper. His apartment doesn't even have a bed. His mysterious next door neighbor, played by the ever batty Bud Cort, invites himself into Favreau's apartment one day and eventually agrees to pay the actor about $28,000 to take a blue suitcase to the desert and hand it to a trucker named Cowboy. Favreau is at first reluctant to do so, because the contents of the suitcase are a secret, and the back-up story involves visitors from space and other such tinfoil hat fol-de-rol, but ol' Jon eventually decides that he needs the money enough to do it. He is also intrigued by the fact that Cort knows things about him that nobody could possibly know.

Favreau's would-be girlfriend (Joey Lauren Adams) tells him that this whole thing can't be a good idea, but he proceeds anyway, figuring  that he really has nothing to lose.

When he finally gets out into the desert, he finds that the suitcase transfer is much more complicated than anticipated, because he keeps missing the legendary Cowboy (played by 006 with the latest in Western wear, but his usual Yorkshire accent!), and people keep telling him that Cowboy is a dangerous dude and is getting madder each time they fail to connect. In his attempts to deliver the suitcase, Favreau keeps running into flaky locals who may or may not be from Earth. Meanwhile, the Bud Cort neighbor from back home turned up missing immediately after handing Favreau the suitcase, so Favreau finds himself a suspect in a robbery and murder investigation. His pursuer is a truly strange FBI agent (Kelsey Grammer, who stole the entire show with a brilliant comic turn).

This is a fun movie. It is maddeningly mannered at times, and really seems to be a bit too much in love with its own eccentricity, but it also manages to bring a kind of daffy warmth to a story which at its core is not about space aliens, but about people living lives of quiet desperation, and the opportunities they might be willing to take, if given the chance. There were moments when this film aggravated me with its smug artiness, but in the end, it won me over with some very strong positives:


Rachael Leigh Cook showed the top of her pubes, and one breast from the side-rear

1. a winning "everyday Joe" performance from Favreau

2. a spectacular rendering of the desert, day and night, in mystical pinks, and purples, and blues, as if it were more than a "big empty" place full of sand and rocks, but actually a place of unearthly beauty and mystery, its own logical geometry, and a compelling dream of tranquility, escape, and otherness.

3. lots of offbeat, almost deranged, humor

4. a strong core of genuine human warmth beneath its lunatic surrealism

It represents a remarkable screen debut for director Steve Anderson, whose entire career consists of this movie. I have no idea who he is, but this kid has real talent. He knows how to mix atmosphere with pacing, which means he's already won 90% of the battle for a director.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

I wish I could tell you that Favreau's financial experiment was a success, but this flick won't even get a shot at the modest level of $400,000 which Donnie Darko grossed. It could find no distributor and went straight to vid, which allowed me to join the other five people who have actually seen the damned thing.

Tuna's thoughts in yellow:

In the olden days, I had to walk 5 miles through .... oops, wrong story.

When I was growing up, there were no cineplexes. Walk-in theaters had a single screen, as did the vast majority of drive-ins. A typical bill would include a first run film, and a B movie as a second feature. It was not until the late 60's that I finally saw a single film (Watermelon Man in New York) as the only film on the bill. Sometimes our local theater would show three B movies instead of an A and a B. Thus, for every first run major release, there was at least one B movie in theatrical circulation, if not more. Then, as now, a major studio release wasn't automatically a good film, so we sometimes left the theater having forgotten the headliner, praising the second (low budget) feature.

The Big Empty would have been one of those winning second features. Second tier feature films now start in the festival circuit, but many of them never see a real release at all, because there is no natural marketplace left for them. My hope is that direct-to-cable and direct-to-DVD will become big enough markets to keep creative indies profitable, which will in turn ensure their continuation. A healthy indie industry develops new talent, and provides both variety and much more innovation than the major studios are willing to risk.

This film set out to be strange, and decidedly accomplished that, but, despite announcing itself as arty and intentionally offbeat, held me glued to the screen beginning to end. I agree with everything Scoop said above, and I would like to add that Daryl Hannah was cast against type as an aging tavern owner, and proved again that she can play characters other than Daryl Hannah.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a solid C+. If you enjoy offbeat films, this one is excellent in every respect.

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