Robin Williams is not funny. There I've said it. And no amount of gesticulation, face pulling or stupid voices is going to change my mind. But, what he can bring to a serious performance is a warmth; pulling out the humanity in the pathetic, the pathos in the hurt and, though it does not apply to this film, the chills in the norm. This latter stage of his career has seen him take on more and more serious roles, he has managed to carve himself a niche playing against his type, and though he may not be the most exciting performer, there is always something interesting in his projects; particularly so with Mark Mylod's The Big White (a far cry from Ali G Indahouse, 2002).
Paul Barnell (Robin Williams) is a down on his luck travel agent working in Alaska, with debts piling up and no money coming in, all he can think of is his wife, Margaret (Holly Hunter), a slightly unstable woman, and what he can do to help her. His brother Raymond (Woody Harrelson) has been missing for five years, but he is unable to cash in the life insurance policy until seven years have passed, or the production of a body. Two hapless assassins, Gary (Tim Blake Nelson) and Jimbo (W. Earl Brown) dump the dead body of one of their victims in a dumpster outside Paul's shop, and when he happens upon it he decides to fool the insurance company, headed up by insatiable insurance fraud investigator Ted (Giovanni Ribisi), by using it as his brother's body and thus claiming on the policy. However, things don't quite go to plan when Ted is not fooled, Gary and Jimbo want the body back, and hold Margaret to ransom for it, and Raymond comes back to town after reading about his 'death' in the papers. What follows is Paul's desperate attempt into fooling everyone, but keep the money, so he can take his wife away somewhere warm, his only consideration, as he feels that will help her.
According to director Mylod, the script for he Big White sat in production limbo for years until he picked it up and subsequently Williams attached his name to it. A combination of Mylods direction, writer Collin Friesen's quirky characters, the actors' interpretation of those characters and some skilful editing by Julie Monroe, has produced a body of work that captures the essence of the Coen Brothers to a tee. Not sure if that was the intention, but that is certainly the result. In particular Fargo (1996) comes to mind. It is a shame that this inevitable comparison will be drawn, for there is much to admire in the film. Williams manages to convey a sympathy for his plight and the chemistry between he and Hunter is such that you could believe he does what he does just for her. Mylod holds a tight pace to the film, and everything happens logically and for reason, no coincidental contrivances here, unless you count the sudden arrival of Raymond. There are one or two problems though, the bumbling nature of Gary and Jimbo, and their subsequent behaviour in the Barnell home remains an annoyance, plus the lack of characterisation of Raymond, he is seen as nothing but the bad guy, there only to create the sympathetic ending; but at least he succeeds in that. These niggles aside, The Big White manages to entertain and never drags, it is exactly the sort of independent film that Hollywood should be looking to make, if you can just get over the Fargo similarities.
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