Dir: Shawn Levy. US. 2002. 87 mins.
The appeal of rising teen stars Frankie Muniz and Amanda Bynes, coupled with some broad comedy and a parent-friendly moral message, have already been enough to give Big Fat Liar a good start at the US box office, taking $13.5m from 2,531 sites in its first week. Younger teens and pre-teens might end up being the only audience groups to truly embrace this noisy, yet resolutely cute PG-rated romp from youth specialists Tollin/Robbins Productions (Hardball, Good Burger); but their enthusiasm could still be sufficient to turn the film into a mid-level domestic theatrical success and a significant video performer. International prospects are much less certain and are likely to vary according to the popularity in any given territory of Muniz' and Bynes' respective TV shows.
Both young leads appear to be on the verge of graduation to a film career: Muniz thanks to the success of primetime network hit Malcolm In The Middle (though he earlier starred on the big screen in My Dog Skip) and Bynes because of the popularity of her Nickelodeon series All That and The Amanda Show (also from Tollin/Robbins). Here, Muniz plays Jason, a bright but sometimes untrustworthy 14-year-old whose crucially overdue English essay falls into the hands of mad dog movie producer Marty Wolf (Giamatti). Desperate for a hit, Wolf surreptitiously turns the essay into the screenplay for his next would-be blockbuster. When Jason hears about the project he treks to Hollywood with best friend Kaylee (Bynes) to confront Wolf, hoping that the producer's confession will regain him the trust of his disappointed parents.
Set mostly in a gaudy, exaggerated version of the Hollywood film world, Big Fat Liar relies heavily on Nickelodeon-style slapstick comedy, a peppy pop tone and a dash of Spy Kids-style action. The comedy - which has Jason and Kaylee tormenting Wolf with a string of stunts and then enlisting the help of his embittered employees in a final attempt to push him over the top - is certainly energetic (and sometimes quite physically aggressive). But it also feels curiously tame and well-mannered. The only real laughs adults will get come from a winking cameo performance by former teen TV star Jaleel White (Family Matters) (another cameo comes from former Fall Guy and Six Million Dollar Man Lee Majors). The peppy pop elements include a couple of disposable musical interludes (featured songs include Move it Like This, a new single from the Baha Men).
Muniz is appealing enough as the smart and likeable Jason, but the material does not use him nearly as effectively as the inventive and relatively edgy Malcolm in the Middle. Bynes gets almost as much screen time as Muniz, but she is essentially just along for the ride. She shows some comic promise in her handful of featured scenes, though her cuteness often feels forced. The versatile Giamatti (Storytelling, Big Momma's House) throws his all into giving the kids a worthily obnoxious adult foil and, without much help from a run of the mill script, produces a few amusing moments.
Prod cos: Universal Pictures, Tollin/Robbins Productions
US dist: Universal
Int'l dist: UIP
Prods: Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins
Exec prod: Michael Goldman
Scr: Dan Schneider
Cinematography: Jonathan Brown
Prod des: Nina Ruscio
Ed: Stuart Pappe, Kimberly Ray
Music: Christophe Beck
Main cast: Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti, Amanda Bynes, Amanda Detmer, Donald Faison, Lee Majors