Thursday 27 June 2013

The Beach (2000)


There exists in most people, not everyone, but most people an urge, a fundamental need to travel beyond their own borders. Specific reasons for this need can vary from person to person, ranging from the relatively low end (“I wanna try the beer of every country in that continent”) to the more high minded (“I want to experience other cultures firsthand”) to the boundary pushing (“I want to be more connected with how I live every day of my life”). However, perhaps the most common thing is a deep-seated quest for freedom, to shake off the constraints of the world in which you’ve grown up and just go, hoping to find adventure, peace, excitement, new experiences, paradise. And what if you were to actually find that paradise? A literal location of beauty and tranquility free from the hassle of the “real world”. And if you found it, what would you do to keep it? To protect it from the others looking for it, too?

Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young American, travels to Thailand to experience a world that is unlike his own back home. Whilst there, he meets the possibly psychotic Daffy (Robert Carlyle), who possesses a map he claims leads to an isolated beach, a tropical paradise. Later, when Richard finds the body of Daffy, a victim of suicide, he takes the map and, inviting along a French couple he has me, sets off to find this new bliss on a secluded island.

Around the mid-90s, specifically 1994, the boys of Figment (director Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald) landed on the British film scene with a hell of a first film, Shallow Grave. Pretty much still standing up there amongst the best feature debuts ever, they then managed to outdo themselves two years later when they released Trainspotting, which gave them an instant passport to worldwide recognition. Perhaps inevitably, their next year’s follow-up, A Life Less Ordinary, saw them stumble a bit. Now, I will eventually get to all three of those films along this journey, but the effect of that third title was something of a temporary retreat for the Figment team. Part of what made A Life Less Ordinary such a flop was the erratic sense of tone and loose focus of the film, trying to make a romance, a crime story, an ethereal road movie, an anarchic comedy… it was kind of all over the place, at least as was seen at the time. Certainly ambitious, but there was no real escaping the fact it was a major departure from the laser-like focus of something like Shallow Grave. Their first flop, it sent the boys back under for three years, during which time they released only one short film in 1999 called Alien Love Triangle, starring Kenneth Branagh, Heather Graham, Courteney Cox and Alice Connor.

However, the following year, they made their return to the feature market, with an adaptation of Alex Garland’s 1996 novel The Beach, in which a disconnected young Brit travels to Thailand seeking adventure and ends up discovering a secret paradise beach on a remote island.

Some of the events that led up to the making of the film are actually quite interesting, given that they are somewhat indicative of some of the problems with the film, of which it undoubtedly has a few. One of the first regarded the casting of the lead. Director Boyle wanted to cast his regular star Ewan McGregor as the lead, however this was not to be. Some stories vary as to when it actually happened, but the primary thrust is that the decision was made over Boyle’s head. McGregor hadn’t quite fully capitalised on the rise to stardom in a major way just yet, and it certainly didn’t help that the last time McGregor and Boyle paired up was a flop. As such, the studio wanted someone much more bankable and “hot” for the lead, and they chose Leonardo DiCaprio, who was still riding the wave of popularity from his heartthrob status and the wild success of 1997’s Titanic. Though Boyle wound up holding DiCaprio in high regard, it was the first of the concessions that had to be made to deliver the product 20th Century Fox wanted, rather than a more accurate depiction of the novel.

By the director’s own admission, The Beach would seem to be kind of an odd choice of project for Danny Boyle. Previously, his films were set in urban environments, locating themselves very much within contemporary modern society. In The Beach, the point is about actively distancing oneself from it, getting away from usual trappings of the urban construct and striking out for parts unknown. As the man said himself, “I liked the actors, we had a great time, but I didn’t like the characters. I’m an urban person. I love cities and I made that film about a load of hippies in the countryside, nothing in common with them at all. You’re there making the film and you think, ‘I can’t relate to these people at all. What are they doing here? I am so bored.’” So, given this point, you would have to ask why exactly he picked this project to return with. Well, looking beyond the “hippies in the countryside” comment, these characters do share a common link to his previous ones: a selfish pursuit of pleasure.

Now, this definition does shift slightly as you look to his previous work. In Shallow Grave, three friends compromise their own morals, and friendship, when presented with a chance for substantial financial gain. In Trainspotting, every character is engaged in a pursuit of their own thrills, be it through drugs, sex or violence. Even in A Life Less Ordinary, Robert and Celine engage in an extended crime spree through desperation and greed… yes, okay, and love. The point is that the characters Boyle has a tendency to focus on aren’t necessarily the most sympathetic or likable, though there is still the argument of how he expects to make an audience relate to these characters when he cannot do so himself. Nevertheless, I believe I can see something of an attraction for Boyle to working on this project, aside from the chance to visit a nice locale.

Richard’s whole quest for paradise is born of the same pleasure-seeking temperament as those in Boyle’s previous films. However, in The Beach, it goes beyond just that of a personal quest. The film itself is a more ambitious attempt to pursue and embrace a higher sense of paradise, one that can be reached, embraced and enjoyed by all… provided they are worthy. This idea of a religious conceit to the film is one that is hinted at here and there, though this could perhaps have been built on better were it not for an apparent need to please the studio, but I’ll get to that in a bit. Paradise as a term has its roots in a religious context, referring to a place of peace and contentment, which rests as a contrary ideal to the abject misery of human existence and, more so, to the torment of a Christian Hell. Despite being located within an Eastern territory, it’s Christianity that is the reference point, since those that come to stay on the titular beach are from the Western world (America, France, Britain, etc.). It would make some sense that the notions of what Paradise is and how one gets there spring from a more Westernised concept of spirituality, hence the fact that many of the Westerners we see in Thailand tend to ignore the beauty of that culture and either stay in watching American movies or go out and get drunk. This Western spirituality returns as an undercurrent in the character of Keaty (Paterson Joseph), the beach resident who brings Richard and his two friends, Françoise (Virginie Ledoyen) and Étienne (Guillaume Canet), to the beach after they make the literal leap of faith from atop a waterfall. Keaty, an Englishman, is said to have only two loves in the world: Christianity and cricket. And there’s a moderately recurring sentiment in Richard’s voiceover, as he makes occasional reference to Paradise and sin. Within the beach community itself, they have developed their own system of ritual and language. Every member is tattooed with three marks on their arm, performed by the last person to arrive before the new ones. They also play a game that involves learning a new language (in this case, Serbian) simply by picking it up and learning odd phrases. Richard gets much praise for his ability to pick up on this quickly.

As is unsurprising, the longer the residents spend in their tropical paradise, the more reluctant they are to return to the main land. When the group’s supply of rice needs replacing, the group’s leader, Sal (an on form Tilda Swinton), a proverbial iron hand in velvet glove, announces that someone needs to accompany her to the mainland for supplies. No one wants to go. Partially because they don’t really want to leave their beautiful idyll, but mainly because going back is now such an unpleasant experience. When you spend your time in a gorgeous paradise, the act of jumping back into normal civilisation, even temporarily, to be surrounded by the miserable wretches of the real world as they stagger and vomit and bellow… it’s not surprising that they want to stay away.

It’s on this run, having been effectively voted into going, that Richard starts to get a better understanding of the maniacal ranting of the man who led him to the beach, Daffy. When he meets Daffy, the man is unhinged. Shouting, swearing, rambling about the parasites of civilisation. At the time, Richard responded as most would: “No offence and all, but, you’re fucked in the head, right?” Now, after having seen the beach and having experienced paradise, Richard understands exactly what Daffy was talking about. Returning to the hectic, grimy, decadent morass of everyday life isn’t just upsetting, but actually kind of painful, even infuriating. Before this, Richard has always had some understanding of the cost of keeping their new home a secret, such as when he watches a fellow member plea for a dentist, but watches as Sal (looking very similar to the Buddha statue at the film’s opening) flat refuses. But Richard understands. “We have a secret here, right? Sometimes people need to take a little pain to keep it that way.” These are words that will certainly come back to haunt him. Now, having been changed by his new surroundings, he knows that there is a cost, and is becoming increasingly more comfortable with protecting paradise from those that he believes are not worthy of it.

This is itself at the heart of what The Beach tries to discuss: the exclusionary nature of Paradise. Everyone that reaches the beach, which before had only been something regarded as rumour or local legend, does so by believing enough in its existence to put themselves at great physical peril. When their faith is rewarded, one of their first thoughts is that this new place must remain a secret, protected from outsiders at all costs. Effectively, it’s the classic traveller vs. tourist dynamic. A traveller is one who seeks out new places, hoping to soak up everything it has to offer before the tourists come along and ruin it, exploiting it and making it just another place to go. However, by putting conditions and exclusions on entry into paradise, doesn’t that contradict what paradise truly is? Were it left up to whomever was the first to reach Paradise to decide who was allowed in thereafter, the exclusivity instilled would, by its nature, create disharmony. On his trip to the mainland with Sal, he does say that they are special because they know, they can live better than this, but that’s not true Paradise. It’s either open to everyone or no one. Otherwise, Heaven is no better than one of those country clubs that won’t let in minorities. And you certainly can’t protect it with violence and force. As it turns out, Paradise corrupts.

There is plenty to think about underneath everything in The Beach, however it does have more than a few problems, which does tend to devalue the whole as a viewing experience. Numerous changes were made between the book and the film and, as I mentioned earlier, these were clearly concessions made to the studio. For example, there is a romance between Richard and Françoise in the film that does not exist in the book. In the book, Richard does have feelings for Françoise, but this never goes further, with Françoise remaining with Étienne. This would rest thematically closer with the idea of something desired, but remaining out of reach that runs through the story. However, in the film, Richard and Françoise do get together, mainly because the studio can work better with a romance plot, plus it’s nice to see pretty people get down in the sand. This has something of a knock-on effect through the rest of the story, as now Étienne is cast aside, and complications arrive later on in the film as a result. It’s not a complete sell-out, as John Hodge does manage to tie it into what must be done to maintain the secret of Paradise.

One of the more regular criticisms made about the film in regards to differences from the novel is the lack of real development in Richard’s character in regard to his obsession with war movies and video games. These elements do come to play in the film, but they do seem hollower than they would if it had been built better. As it is, sequences where Richard literally transposes himself into a video game fantasy are what fill the gaps, or, on a more subtle level, moments when Richard starts to unravel in the jungle strike a very Apocalypse Now feel since Boyle and cinematographer Darius Khondji seem to be purposely trying to recreate the lighting and atmosphere of that film’s final scenes, as well as giving Richard a red head band, recalling The Deer Hunter.

The biggest problem with The Beach is that, in all of its tone-hopping, going from romance to adventure to thriller, with war motifs and religious undertones, it all feels a bit clumsy. Danny Boyle did say that if the film had a smaller budget, he would have been more likely to ignore studio directives. However, since he had been handed around $50million (easily the biggest budget he’d been given at that point), he felt more obliged to acquiesce to their demands. There was also an alternate ending not used, which may be more of a downer, but would at least have felt truer to the film's message. And because the filmmakers spent some time telling the story, and some time giving the studios what they wanted, any potential subtext gets lost in the haze.

The Beach is a beautiful looking film, with many beautiful people in it. And there isn’t really a bad show in there, though Robert Carlyle and Tilda Swinton are the clear standouts, especially since they’re served with some of the better-written roles. And it’s not like there is nothing worth talking about, either. It just falls short too often to get a real handle on what it wants to talk about.

Perhaps the real legacy of the film comes from the treatment of the island itself during the production process. In order to make the already gorgeous beach of Ko Phi Phi Lee a bit more “paradise-like”, 20th Century Fox had crews bulldoze the beaches to flatten them and ripped up some of the natural landscaping to widen the beach. They even introduced trees that were not native to the land because they looked better… yeah, I know, right? Fox did set aside money with which they could return the beach to its previous natural state, but environmentalists still sued, claiming the ecosystem had been permanently damaged. Some of the natural state of the beaches was restored by the tsunami in 2004, but that same disaster actually also caused other portions of the beach to literally collapse and break apart. In telling a story about the corruptive influence of Paradise and the terrible things people will do protect it, the filmmakers tried to improve on the look of a genuine island paradise and ruined it… bloody tourists.

Monday 10 June 2013

Be Kind Rewind (2008)


Despite the huge hiatus I took from this already enormous project, I think it should be pretty damn obvious at this point that movies mean a lot to me. If they didn’t, I don’t think I’d be even remotely close to the person I am today, let alone attempting to review every film I own one by one on the Internet. I love movies, and so I especially like it when a film comes out that so clearly comes from that same place in the filmmaker. Michel Gondry is one of those filmmakers that can do this. Idiosyncratic, quirky, absurd and possessed of a unique visual style, Gondry looked back to the films of the past to tell a story of what they mean to people and how they can bring them together through the acts of communal memory.

In Passaic, New Jersey, Elroy Fletcher (Danny Glover) runs a video rental store in a condemned building he claims was the birthplace of jazz legend Fats Waller. Facing foreclosure, Fletcher goes on a business venture, leaving his foster son Mike (Mos Def) in charge of the store. However, when Mike’s friend Jerry (Jack Black) tries to sabotage a nearby power station and becomes magnetised, he inadvertently erases every tape in the store. Mike and Jerry quickly hatch a plan to hide the disaster by making homemade versions of every title to rent and save the store. With help from the local community, their films develop a cult following.

When Gondry first talked to Jack Black about the project, specifically the premise of two friends who accidentally erase all the tapes in a video rental store and have to quickly make up new versions themselves, Black assumed that it was to be a period piece, set in the 70s or 80s. Gondry corrected him that it would be set today, that it would be a video rental store that, now in a world of DVD players and digital playback, was now finally on its way out. Right away, there is a rather wistful sadness to this idea. That this store, its name of Be Kind Rewind now being something that's redundant in this modern day, has held on for way longer than it really should have and is now on the verge of collapse. This point is actually quite literally made, since the entire building itself is due to be condemned, failing to meet some of the most basic requirements for safety and public use. Progress is coming, whether they want it or not.

The store’s owner, Mr. Fletcher, is clearly someone who could never really hack it in a fast-paced world. Early in the film, whilst having lunch with Mike and Jerry, they ask him why he was never married. He answers, “Well, the common story is, the girl that you was gonna ask, you waited too long to ask. She went on to marry somebody else and then you can’t find anybody to compare to her. So, what happens? You get old.” And old itself has a sort of double meaning here, too. Yes, Mr. Fletcher has indeed got old and is now too far gone to catch up, but the force of progress that threatens to oust him and end his business comes in the form of a neighbourhood gentrification project, which plans to clean up the rundown area and rename it Olde Passaic. Mr. Fletcher wants to keep his home and his business, but he needs time to do it.

His foster son Mike (I say foster son, though I’m not really entirely sure as to what the relationship actually is between the two, but it seems the most likely) also wants to hold on to the old neighbourhood, as opposed to the Olde neighbourhood, for a few reasons. Like Mr. Fletcher, he wants to keep things the way they are. He wants Mr. Fletcher to be happy. And he likes the neighbourhood, though when pressed he has kind of a tough time giving reasons as to why. When he and Jerry argue about it, both have their viewpoints on Passaic.
            Jerry: Mike, you have zero ambition.
            Mike: What?
Jerry: That’s your problem. You’re gonna be stuck in this dump
for the rest of your life. Good night.
            Mike: What? What? What’s a dump? What’s a dump? My shop
is a dump? You live in a junkyard.
Jerry: Not just the store… this whole city is a swamp.
            Mike: It’s a swamp now?
Jerry: Yeah, a dump swamp. When you get stuck here, you’re
stuck for life. Come on, Mike, what is so great about this town? Huh?
            Mike: … the people.
            Jerry: The people? You’re gonna make me cry. The people. The
only reason there’s anybody here is because they have nowhere to go.

Perhaps Jerry’s less positive outlook can be forgiven. At least Mike has reasons to hold some affection for his neighbourhood. He grew up here, has something of a life, albeit not a particularly good one if we’re honest. And he’s proud to have lived in the very building in which jazz great Fats Waller was born. It’s the story that Mr. Fletcher has told him since he was young, and is the story that we are told right at the start of the film, that Harlem wasn’t the capital of the jazz scene back in the day; Passaic was. How can you not want to hold on to such an important part of history when it’s so close to you? That’s why he tries to paint a mural of Fats beneath an overpass, to give the people of the neighbourhood something to look to and in which they can take some level of pride.

However, with Jerry, he has comparatively even less than Mike. Jerry does live in a junkyard, in a trailer, right next to a power station. Worse still, he believes that microwaves from the power station are causing his brains and the brains of everyone else to become affected, which is all part of a government conspiracy to alter behaviour. To buy things, to accept things… yeah, he’s a little strange. And people do dismiss him as the paranoid oddball for his strangeness. The local cops even make something of a joke of visiting his trailer in the night, taking turns knocking on his walls, claiming to be from the government, that the black helicopters are here and such… but Jerry has a plan: sabotage.

When Mr. Fletcher leaves town to go to a Fats Waller remembrance ceremony, leaving Mike in charge, Jerry enlists Mike in his plan to scale the fence of the power station and destroy it by swinging a grappling hook onto it and……. well, that’s actually it. Jerry thinks that should be enough to stop the microwaves from controlling everyone, somehow. Mike initially declines, but goes along anyway (it’s kind of plot hole, but not a particularly major one). However, halfway through the mission, Mike gets cold feet about the plan and abandons Jerry and takes off. Jerry stays to follow through, but in a moment that you’d think could only happen in films from the 80s, the power station fights back and sabotages Jerry.

The next morning, when Jerry visits the store to tell Mike about the previous night, Jerry gets in an argument with a customer when he keeps re-arranging all the tapes in the store. It’s not until a little later that we find out that this is the moment when Jerry, having been magnetised by the attempted sabotage, has inadvertently erased every single tape in the store. After an initial period of worry, and under the threat that Mr. Fletcher will be told how poorly Mike is coping, he has an idea. Grabbing a VHS camera and the blank tape of Ghostbusters, he announces to Jerry, “I’m Bill Murray, you’re everyone else.” They are going to personally remake every title in the store, using themselves as cast and crew, from memory, thus keeping the store in business.

Yes, the premise is bizarre as all hell, but don’t you just love that? For the potential downer that Be Kind Rewind could become (the end of VHS, for these people, for this neighbourhood), there is an absurd whimsy and warmth about the whole thing that is incredibly charming. Instead of succumbing to the inevitable, these two guys fight back, armed with a camera and some of the most ridiculous props and costumes available. And as they go, their notoriety escalates. They become so famous that people from all across the state come to see what they’ve made, like their 20-minute version of Ghostbusters featuring a ginger cat as Zuul and proton beams made of Christmas tinsel; their remake of Boyz n’ the Hood in which gunshots result in a literal pizza on the ground standing in for blood; or their take on RoboCop, where the titular character is made entirely of autoyard scrap.

Not only do Mike and Jerry become moderately famous in the city, but the community comes together to help them make more films, effectively becoming an enormous production crew and repertory company. Everyone bands together to make new versions of these films, but all in the uniquely zero-budget way they called “Sweded”.

It’s in this nature of Sweding that we see some of the great tricks of what is effectively guerrilla filmmaking, many of which Michel Gondry used himself growing up. They utilise depth of field and perspective tricks to create a sense of scale between a giant Jack Black-shaped King Kong and the screaming woman he snatches through a window; they flip the camera to negative in order to film night shots during the day; and they use cheap scale models for scenes like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man attacking New York. It’s such a wonderful combination of crass cheapness and incredibly imaginative technique. What’s even better are some of the titles they claim to have Sweded, either from what is seen on shelves or are mentioned during filming montages. Return of the King is one such title that would be absolutely hilarious to see as rendered by three people using a budget of about $20 and filmed in New Jersey. On the other end of the scale is mentioned a Sweded version of Harmony Korine’s Gummo, which, if you’re familiar with that film, proposes an idea of such absurdity since Gummo is as close to the real world equivalent of Sweding films as it’s possible to get. (Harmony Korine even outdid that in 2009 when he made Trash Humpers, a film made entirely on VHS and edited using two VCRs instead of actual editing equipment.) There is even a shot in Be Kind Rewind of genuinely impressive staging in which we are presented with a montage of the films being made, but it is actually one single, uninterrupted shot, with everyone moving from set-piece to set-piece, taking in films as diverse as King Kong, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Men in Black and Carrie. It’s a great shot.

Eventually, things do start to catch up with the Be Kind Rewind crew, with representatives of movie studios looking to enforce copyright law showing up to end their business. It’s here once again that the idea of progress, or at least a contrary sense of progress, seems to enter the film. Even though what they are doing is a violation of copyright law, the films that they make are helping them to progress and make some headway in saving their business, and also fostering a sense of community. Indeed, what they are doing can be found on the Internet and in most film schools, with students remaking scenes and sometimes whole movies in order to develop and progress their skills as filmmakers (I once happened upon a short piece of film on an edit suite in which some students were re-enacting a scene from Twilight… it was pretty funny). And this idea of creativity being derived, borrowed, flat-out stolen from what has gone before has been acknowledged by some great innovators in the world of art. Pablo Picasso famously said that, “good artists copy; great artists steal” and that, “every act of creation is an act of destruction”. Indeed, the history of creating new art or technology or science is a history of taking what has come before and reworking it into something else, something new. That the studios go after the Be Kind Rewind crew is as much an act of desperation that their product will be devalued as it is the defence of intellectual property. In a weird way, Gondry's film that revolves around the anachronism of VHS being overtaken by the new technology of DVD, and those that fight to save it, finds its parallel in the studio executives (like those who try to shut down this small movement) who find themselves on the line of being ousted by the surge of independent filmmakers who rise thanks to the new media opportunities of the Internet and digital distribution... hell of a thing, that.

This idea of taking from the past and turning it into what you want or need it to be is addressed directly in the film when, after the visit from the studio reps ends their Sweding run, the community band together for a last chance at saving the neighbourhood by making something new. It’s no longer about the community banding together over the shared love of other films. Now, it’s about keeping that community together by creating something that speaks for them all. As Jerry says, “We can make any movie we want… they can’t sue us if we’re making new ones.” And the story they choose is simple… a history of Fats Waller’s life as lived in Passaic. They want to tell the story of someone who Mr. Fletcher called “a happy man.”

Given that the film is as much as ode to community as it is to film, Michel Gondry embraced the real community of Passaic as much as he could. Some roles were given to real residents of the area. Pretty much every extra you see was local to the area they were shooting. And the final shot that assembles the community at large is a genuinely heart-warming sight. In making a film about a community coming together, Gondry really did bring a community together.

Be Kind Rewind may require you to screw on something of a whimsical head at certain moments (if you can take Jerry’s attempted sabotage of the power plant as the hilarious throwback that it is, you’ll be fine), but it is a truly warm and charming film, with a deep affection for film, for music, for people. Everyone is great, from Mos Def and Jack Black’s odd double act to the delightful Melonie Diaz to the slightly spaced out kookiness of Mia Farrow. In this film, Gondry has created something of sincerity and obvious love, and it is most certainly worth the watch.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Be Big! (1931)


Today, we going to be going back into the long, long ago… well, the early 1930s. We’re going to look at a comedy short from the early days of the “talkies” from one of the most legendary comedic duos ever… Laurel & Hardy, classic combination of the skinny Limey and the fat Yank. Though both began as established actors in their own right, they ultimately began officially working together under the roof of Hal Roach’s studio in 1926, where they stayed for 14 years, becoming one of the most beloved comedy treasures that Hollywood has ever given the world. During their time under Roach, they released the film that we look at today - Be Big!

Just about to leave for the train station for a vacation in Atlantic City with their wives, Stanley (Stan Laurel) and Oliver (Oliver Hardy) get a phone call from a fellow lodge member who tells them a surprise stag party is being held in their honour that evening. Initially hesitant because of their plans, they accept and Oliver feigns illness to get out of leaving that day, suggesting Stanley stay to look after him and sending the wives on ahead by themselves. What follows is a series of physical pratfalls as the pair attempt to get ready for their big night.

What’s that rule about comedy? You know, the famous one. The one about how important something is to the telling of a joke. It’s only one word. It’s the key to comedy. Why can’t I remember it? Well, I suppose I shouldn’t feel too bad about not remembering that one rule, since it seems that Laurel & Hardy and most other people involved in Be Big! had forgotten it, too. There’s something ver-TIMING! That’s it! The most important thing in comedy is timing! Thank God, that would have annoyed me for a long while. Anyway, what was I saying? Oh right…

There’s something very laborious about this venture from the guys in the bowler hats, like they're just going through the motions because it's time to make another film. The premise itself is actually a pretty decent set-up for physical gaffs and energetic clumsiness. Two guys want to go to a party with their friends, but have already made plans with their wives. As such, they invent some scheme whereby they can get out of the plans they already have and do what they want, all without their respective spouses being any the wiser. Let’s be honest, it smacks of crazy shenanigans, which is exactly what Laurel & Hardy were all about.

And probably the best thing going for the film was the general conceit that gives the film its title. As Olly himself says, "No man is bigger than the excuses he makes to his wife. So... Be Big." It all ties to that idea that in order to have a successful marriage (read as: fool their wives and get away with their scheme), they need to lie… a lot. This idea is actually a pretty common one: if you make up a lie, the smaller and more convincing it sounds, the less likely it is that people will believe it. As such, the best way to go is to have an excuse be so big and ridiculous and implausible that it would have to be true, so they would have to believe it. One guesses that this idea has been of greater use to comedy writers over the years than people who actually are trying to lie effectively. I actually remember this idea being the basis behind an episode of Cheers ("Let Sleeping Drakes Lie") involving Norm, Tom Skerritt and a swarm of bees. And to be honest, Cheers did it better.

What really gets in the way of Be Big! being good is the incredibly clumsy way in which the central conceit has been handled, and it’s all down to a combination of bad direction, poor timing and simply not knowing what to do with that idea. The film itself is just under a half hour long, around 27 minutes or so. I’m not kidding when I say that around 12 of those minutes are given over to one single joke: the pair accidentally put the other’s boots on, Oliver becomes stuck in Stan's boots and they try to get them off… almost half of the film’s duration sees the two clumsily, awkwardly, utterly failing to free old Olly from these boots. He tries pulling them off himself, Stan tries to pull them off, they try using a bootjack, they try using brute force, all without success. In doing so, they break a chair, a mirror, some curtains, Olly sits on a nail, and they each get their foot caught in the other’s sweater. This may sound all zany and the like, but it feels like it goes on forever. I understand they’re going for the hilarious notion of so much bother caused by such a simple task, as is the mainstay of physical comedy, but it’s just tiresome. And it’s all just basically one joke, repeated over and over and over and over again. It constantly aims for silly and hits stupid almost every time instead. As an example, there is a moment when Olly tries to explain to Stan just how simple this process should be. He has Stan put on one of his (that is, Olly’s) boots just so he can take it off and show the ease with which they should be able to the same for Olly. However, this is just kind of ridiculous considering we know the boot will come off Stan’s foot easier because it’s too big for him. In fact, we previously saw him literally jump out of one earlier, so this whole bit is just nonsense. And yes, I know that part of their dynamic was that Olly would try to explain to Stan how simple some things should be with disastrous consequences, but that doesn’t mean it always works.

Another problem comes from a trademark of both men: Olly’s looking into the camera with consternation; and Stan’s looking awkwardly confused. They, of course, do this several times throughout the film, but all it does here is get in the way, stretching out the gaps in action and killing what little momentum they managed to build. If the film were better paced, or the physical gaffs were better, these moments would add to the moment, as they do with the pair's other movies. Directors Horne and Parrott really drop the ball in this instance since there was a way of bridging the gaps between these gags without constantly stopping things. When the wives arrive at the train station, they find out they’ve just missed their train and there won’t be another one until tomorrow. As such, they get back in their taxi and head home, saying how they can’t wait to see the look on their husbands’ faces. That’s the last time we see them until the end. We could have cut back to them, just once or twice, showing their progress, maybe giving them an obstacle to draw out the journey a little, just to build a bit of tension and allowing quicker set-ups between Olly and Stan’s boot-pulling attempts.

Of course, it’s all well and good me saying this 80 years after the fact. Besides, there would have been some constraints to deal with, the biggest of which likely being a reluctance to cut away from Laurel & Hardy, who were the stars of the picture and the thing people wanted to see. It’s doesn’t really excuse the problems, but does at least explain some of them. The fact that they have only one comedy idea for the whole film which just gets repeated again and again is the thing that remains without explanation or excuse.

Be Big! isn’t really one of the pair’s better efforts and not a good place to start for those new to Laurel and Hardy, mostly just feeling inane thanks to flat direction, rather choppy editing and what feels like a complete lack of ideas given the golden ticket of the titular idea. Given that almost half of the film’s running time is taken up with a single extended gag, which runs out of steam very quickly, it would seem that this film was made as a piece of filler rather than anything that was meant to last. Had the film been half as long, it would likely have been greatly improved. As it is, it’s a rather untoward bump in the golden comedy road for the duo.