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CRITIC AT LARGE

Taking a Bite Out of Hollywood in 'The Big Picture'

September 19, 1989|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

The awful frustration for the hopeful, it has always seemed to me, is the suspicion that success and failure in Hollywood are bestowed with equal irrationality.

Why one beautiful and intelligent actress zooms to the top while another, equally beautiful and smart, waits under the mistletoe for the kiss of major success that never comes, is a bafflement.

It is the same with actors and directors, and with producers and all the other creative forces in film. The given explanation is that it's the breaks, which are as random as falling leaves. Yet it seems clear after a while that the breaks themselves are founded upon rumor, hearsay, hunches, vague impressions and other amorphous aspects of irrationality.

The cruel illogic of success is one of the sharp little observations in "The Big Picture," Christopher Guest's satire on student film makers and their transition from the halls of ivy to the horrors of Hollywood. Guest co-authored the film with Michael Varhol and Michael McKean.

"The Big Picture," as the critics have said, has an assured audience consisting of every present or former film student in the world. And that may be it. Beyond that, its prospects seem murky, although it is often quite funny, never more so than in its parodies of student films themselves in their extremes of low foolishness and high seriousness.

Kevin Bacon plays the film maker, who at heart is a flawed Horatio Alger with a viewfinder. He is swept up on rumors of his talent; no one has seen his work but he won a prize at film school. He is swept away in a studio shake-up, swept back again on new rumors of his talent, based now on a music video everyone has heard about and no one has seen.

Meanwhile he has done the whole parabola, up with shades and a leased Porsche, dismissing the swell girl and loyal pal just before he plummets into poverty, odd jobs and a smoking clunker of a car.

In the end--and I don't give too much away because throughout it is the passing scenery rather than the destination which gives the film its small, bright tang-irrationality rather more than integrity has prevailed.

Our hero is making his own film his own way. But, wait, there is yet another arrow in the quiver. Unless I'm greatly misled, the movie he is doing will be sincerely terrible, pretentious and only remotely related to his own experience. Like the film within the film that Truffaut was shooting in "Day for Night," which promised to be a dreadful period piece, the boy's film will embrace whatever is stale about the big time.

So far as I can tell, the principals involved in the creation of "The Big Picture" have not themselves been through the film-school process but observed it from nearby positions on whatever campus they were at.

It has probably made a difference. The largest target is not the film-school idea but the Hollywood of legend, with its paranoid male executives and their yes men, the new breed of killer women executives with their yes persons, talent agents of monumental duplicity, cupidity and ignorance (Martin Short has a dazzling extended cameo as one such agent). Most of the types have been familiar from "Merton of the Movies" forward.

There are jibes at the varieties of film school graduates, broadly seen. As in real life there are the opportunists eager to be courtesans before they have been virgins, so to speak. And there are the avant-gardists who may never be commercial but who may do something truly original and memorable.

What there is too little sense of is the fervent dedication of the true believers, who live in film school as in a world apart from everything else, with a 24-hour-a-day pressure cooker intensity, watching dawn break over the editing table, cadging loans for another day's shooting, fervently dissecting Fellini and Kurosawa over cold coffee, dreaming not of "Halloween" but an updated "Rules of the Game."

Film students are not now--if they ever were--naive about the realities of Hollywood. And here in Los Angeles, particularly the agents are indeed poised like spiders at the campus gate. Yet a stronger sense of hope in the Bacon character might have made the wet-towel slap of reality even louder.

As it is, "The Big Picture" is undeniably amusing in an appropriately undergraduate way and its sharpest bits have a keen bite, even if the targets are likely to pop back up unhurt. And the movie does confirm that logic will get you nowhere.

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