Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Big Trouble

Big Trouble (1986)
Starring Alan Arkin, Peter Falk, Beverly D’Angelo, Robert Stack, Charles Durning

Big Trouble feels like a defeat. It’s the defeat of an extremely independent personality who made films that he wanted to make, not caring about building a large audience. With Big Trouble, Cassavetes gives in to the studios and it seems poetically appropriate that he died after making this film. The picture is an unofficial follow up to Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws (1979), and Hiller was originally attached to direct until fights with the studio caused him to leave. Bring in Cassavetes (such a bizarre choice, but I suspect his friendship with Peter Falk played a part) and you have a film that is shredded so brutally in the editing bay by the studio that any humor that might have been gleaned from its piss poor script is lost.

Leonard Hoffman (Arkin) is an insurance salesman with triplets who have all been accepted to the music program at Yale. This has sent him into a breakdown as he tries to gather the funds to get his boys into school. Cue the sultry Blanche (D’Angelo), a woman looking to purchased an insurance policy for her ailing husband, Steve (Falk). She confides in Leonard that she and Steve plan to have him die at home via pills, the stage it to look like an accidentally death. They need Leonard’s help so that Blanche will be provided for in the wake of Steve’s demise. Leonard agrees, especially when he will receive a cut of the policy after it is paid out. However, once the scheme is hatched Leonard learns the truth about this deal and painfully unfunny hijinks ensue.

You can feel Cassavetes on set, tossing the script aside and encouraging Falk and Arkin to improve a lot of their scenes together, but it never works. Whether is was a lack of rehearsal before filming or studio suits of set hindering Cassavetes. It also reeks of multiple script re-writes with the film shifting tone and plot about three times along the way. Characters show up and vanish, and a terrorism subplot is thrown in at the end as a deus ex machina. The film is purportedly a farce, but seems to only be in the loosest sense. I get the feeling the people behind the film believed all you needed for a farce was an incoherent plot. The film chokes and sputters to its weak conclusion.

Looking back at the work of John Cassavetes, I can’t say he is a director whose work I consistently enjoy. I respect the hell out of his very personal and independent style of filmmaking, but honestly I am relieved to be done with his films. There were lots of strong highlights for me: Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, Love Streams. However, to get into his movies you need an incredibly strong sense of patience, but for many of them you will be rewarded if you stick with the picture. I am also in awe of Gena Rowlands, who is now one of my favorite actresses. She was unafraid to look “un-ladylike” and uses her age as a plus. I can’t see a woman in her twenties or thirties delivering the level of performance that Rowlands brought.

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