The Big Empty
directed by Steve Anderson
(Artisan, 2003)

John Person is a man on a mission. He's just not sure what that mission is.

Person (Jon Favreau) knows he has to deliver a blue suitcase to a guy named Cowboy at a truck stop in the southern California desert, a.k.a. "The Big Empty." And he knows, or, rather, he's been assured, that if he makes the delivery, he'll receive some $27,000 -- quite a sum for an out-of-work actor who divides his time between running a courier service in an old Volkswagen bus and hanging up portfolio photos of himself -- or about the exact sum he needs to get himself out of debt. (After all, California apartments and portfolio photos don't come cheap.)

But Person just can't seem to make the connections he's supposed to, in part because of all the distractions he meets along the way: his nutty neighbor Neely (Bud Cort), who sends him out on the mission; Elron, the nutty desk clerk at the Aloha Hawaiian Motel where he has to stay after he misses Cowboy (Sean Bean); Stella (Daryl Hannah), a comely bartender whose even comelier daughter, Ruthie (Rachael Leigh Cook), keeps dragging Person out into the desert on one hopeless quest after another; Randy (Adam Beach), the local anger-management-class dropout who's unalterably opposed to Ruthie dragging potential romantic rivals out into the desert; Dan the diner denizen (Brent Briscoe), who explains to Person in unnerving detail the Roswellian purpose The Big Empty serves; and The Big Empty itself.

Neither does it help when Person's neighbor, Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), calls to tell him Neely has been murdered -- decapitated, actually -- and that an FBI agent (Kelsey Grammer) is looking for him in connection with the case.

All this would seem to fill up The Big Empty in a hurry, but it doesn't, in part because writer-director Steve Anderson has captured the lackadaisical pace at which events often move in the sweltering Southwest, and in part because deserts simply have such a marvelous capacity to swallow up any and all things that come their way.

More importantly, Anderson has put together a labyrinthian ensemble piece in which nothing is explained until everyone gets in his or her 2 cents -- and even then it's not explained all that well. The result is a kind of quirky comedy with a few genuinely scary moments, a cross perhaps between State & Main and Twin Peaks -- not as shrewdly humorous as the former or as scathingly ominous as the latter, but carefully designed to keep its audience off-balance and guessing for most of its 94 minutes.

Sadly, however, the payoff never quite pays off. A sudden turn toward the serious after Person makes his delivery, followed by a rush to recover its quirky humor, undercuts the ending and leaves things in the hand of the film's weakest link, Favreau himself. (Grammer, on the other hand, is brilliant; what a wicked edge he puts on Agent Banks).

Aesthetically, the film leaves something to be desired, too. It's almost as if the cinematographer didn't really get inspired until he had to follow Person out into The Big Empty at night. What he does then is awe-inspiring. What he does before and after that is serviceable, but often leaves you wondering what he could have accomplished end to end, had he but budget enough and time.

One critic has gone so far as to say The Big Empty is exactly what the title proclaims it to be. I wouldn't say that. I'd say it was a rather good, occasionally great, effort with many moments that simply shouldn't be missed. It's just unfortunate there aren't a few more of them.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 28 August 2004

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