Young performers give uneven `Liar' a lift

February 09, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

An amusing take on the old "Boy who cried wolf" theme (and fortunately, in this version, the boy doesn't get eaten in the end), Big Fat Liar benefits from assured performances from a pair of young old pros and a script that's consistently lighthearted, if not light-footed.

The movie stars Frankie Muniz (Fox TV's Malcolm in the Middle) and Amanda Bynes (Nickelodeon's The Amanda Show) as a pair of resourceful kids out to get an amoral Hollywood producer (a hyperkinetic Paul Giamatti) to do the right thing. And in Hollywood, where ego and self-aggrandizement are everything, that's not easy.

Young Jason Shepherd (Muniz) isn't exactly a poster boy for responsible adolescence. He lies as easily as some of us breathe, making up convoluted excuses for not doing his schoolwork. When a big essay is due and he hasn't bothered writing it, he spins a yarn about his father's having choked on a meatball, convinces his teacher it's the gospel truth and bathes in smug self-satisfaction at a con well done.

But when the ruse is discovered, it's summer school for Jason - unless he can get the story written and to his teacher in the next three hours.

As with all movie liars, of course, Jason has the smarts to not have to lie. He does the assignment and jumps on his bicycle to deliver it. But then he runs into a limousine driven by Hollywood mogul Marty Wolf (Giamatti), and things really spin out of control. Jason leaves the essay in Wolf's limo, and ends up in summer school. Worse, his parents don't believe he wrote it in the first place.

And worse still, Wolf turns the story into a blockbuster motion picture and takes the credit for himself. So Jason, determined to prove to his dad that he actually told the truth for once, heads to Hollywood, accompanied by his best friend, Kaylee (Bynes).

Naturally, Wolf wants no part of Jason or his credibility problems and refuses to tell the truth. Jason is driven to seek the revenge he feels is his right, all the while assuring Wolf that he'll stop as soon as the truth is revealed.

Giamatti is a sleaze-ball force of nature as the bug-eyed Wolf, while Muniz makes Jason amusingly persistent in his quaint desire to simply prove to his dad that he can tell the truth. (I'm not sure one such incident would make up for all the lies, but let's assume this isn't meant to be a morality play.) And Bynes is a real find, a young actress with genuine presence and practiced comic timing.

Director Shawn Levy pushes the pedal too hard at times, overplaying jokes that would have been funnier with about half the setup and effort. But he keeps the mood light, and he doesn't try to get laughs by resorting to embarrassing situations that evoke more titters than guffaws from the audience. The laughs in Big Fat Liar might not be constant, but at least they're genuine.

Big Fat Liar

Starring Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti, Amanda Bynes

Directed by Shawn Levy

Released by Universal

Rated PG

Running time 88 minutes

Sun score ***

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