Editor’s note: this article contains spoilers for Big Fat Liar. If you’ve not seen it, get Netflix up right now and meet us back here in 90 minutes. Go!
Way back in 2002, before he reached the dizzying heights of Stranger Things, Arrival or The Internship, director Shawn Levy worked on a little breakout feature called Big Fat Liar. It’s widely regarded as the film that catapulted its cast and crew to A-lister fame: then-teen stars Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle) and Amanda Bynes, along with Paul Giamatti, all went on to achieve great things in their careers, while Levy’s own success goes without saying. It’s rare for a film to age so well but BFL is still excruciatingly funny even 18 years after release.
A (literal) adaption of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, it tells the story of Jason Shepherd (Muniz), a 14-year-old compulsive liar whose fibs won’t save him when bigshot Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (Giamatti) steals his school paper to adapt into a screenplay. Jason and his best friend Kaylee (Bynes) skip summer school in their suburban home of Michigan and travel to LA to recover the work and win back the trust of his father.
With an absolutely unforgettable sequence of Giamatti dancing to Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf in Prada Speedos, it’s a film of infinite fun, childlike abandon, and a soundtrack for the ages. It’s early-noughties, wholesome family Hollywood at its finest. But what’s fascinating is that it also has a lot to say about morality and the value of truth, which I’ll explore in a bit more depth. But first, watch this:
We’ve forgotten how to have fun: Big Fat Liar reminds us how
Big Fat Liar is unmistakably a self-reflexive film about Hollywood and about filmmaking, but it was produced in an industry very different to the one we’ve seen evolve today. Between 2002 and 2020, it’s fair to say the world has changed beyond recognition. BFL came from a markedly more innocent time, back when product placement wasn’t such a contentious legal issue, or corrupt Hollywood producers were only ever goofy caricatures to be skewered and ridiculed, never a real threat.
Incredibly, a recent article on a real site I’ve just discovered (check it out in your own time) called the film Big Fat Plagiarist. Sure, they make some surprisingly lucid points about copyright and creative control. But having the Shepherds file a lawsuit against Marty Wolf right off the bat would have made it a very different — and depressing — film. No, sucking all the joy and fun out of the story is not what this is all about. To hell with it: this is Hollywood, baby, and there’s a movie to shoot!
I’m happy to say that the sense of foreboding and guardedness that now mires so many productions is nowhere to be found in this gleeful $15 million caper, which according to Levy, would cost just about the same as the catering on one of his later productions. Its unbridled sense of joy and childlike wonder is what makes BFL so magical for me. We’d watch it often and laugh uncontrollably as kids; some of the most memorable lines are still repeated in conversations. It’s a film that just captures what it means to be a kid, having fun, enjoying life and not taking anything too seriously, and that’s why I think it’s been so important to revisit this year more than ever.
One of my favourite scenes, popular with kids and adults alike, is in the film’s second act. After blagging their way to LA, Jason and Kaylee reach the Universal Studio lot and realise they need a place to stay. Sneaking behind film sets of every genre from Westerns to Musicals, they come across a props warehouse, and the neon lighting reveal is absolutely magnificent. It’s every kid’s dream to be let loose behind the scenes in a film studio.
There’s an epic montage to the tune of Hairbrain’s I Wish, where the kids run around trying on different costumes they’ve chosen, riding bikes and scooters, and dancing around with props, which according to the director ‘was as much fun to shoot as it looked – we just filmed the kids having fun and built a sequence around it.’ Having that much fun in a day’s work — isn’t that the dream?
Impossible not to enjoy, and a moral tale too
BFL fits into a neat, 90-minute package, which is so wonderful and digestible that you feel like you need to rewatch it again immediately afterwards. Now, we’re so used to the streaming model and to series that drag out for seven seasons at a time, it’s refreshing to come across this colourful little Starburst of a film.
It’s split into three acts, made up of four ‘stages’ of Hollywood infiltration, and I absolutely love how much it leans into the formula. Part comedy, part espionage, it’s easy to follow, impossible not to enjoy. Sure, there’s your standard exposition, inciting incident, conflicts, montages, hero-villain standoffs, payback, and resolution. But within all this we have the levels the film draws attention to: Phase 1: The Surveillance. Phase 2: The Takedown. Phase 3: The Twist. Phase 4: The Payback. All the while we see the characters learn from each other, go on adventures and face their worst enemies — often manifestations of themselves.
Before they meet, Jason lives in his own mundane, suburban high-school life, while Marty Wolf is an ultra-sleazebag with more money than taste. They may seem polar opposite, but in his director’s commentary, Levy explains that Marty Wolf and Jason are essentially two halves of the same coin. Unless Jason changes his ways, he will become as depraved a liar as Marty Wolf, who is the worst version of himself. In that way, it goes from becoming a fun film about filmmaking to a didactic about the value of truth, and even (pushing the analogy down a layer further) a psychological examination of our motivations and personalities. Absolutely fascinating!
Not to mention…incredible stunts
Levy had met Giamatti at Yale and the pair had worked on plays together, before Levy pursued filmmaking at USC. Their working relationship, over a decade at the time of filming, is evident throughout BFL. I highly doubt Giamatti would have endured so much — dancing in Speedos, being painted blue for multiple shoots, dyed hair, terrorised by feral children — if there hadn’t been so much trust between them. It did, of course, pay off in the long run, but it highlights the lengths you’ll have to go to sometimes in the name of art!
Giamatti reportedly had to endure hours of makeup for his blue colouring, not to mention the extreme lengths he went to, shooting the most memorable scene of the film. As well as his unforgettable performance, BFL is peppered with such stomach-churning stunts it’ll make you queasy. From an artificial flash-flood which wiped out one of the crew’s cameras (every movie has a $10,000 shot – this was theirs), to an emergency skydive from a helicopter piloted by the Six Million Dollar Man, it’s chock-full of mega-stunts that remind you what it’s like to be six years old again and enthralled by the big screen. The film takes us through every genre, from thriller to Western, Martial Arts caper to exotic escapade, and all back home again before the long weekend is over.
Some sequences, like a shot with the kids and driver Frank Jackson (Donald Faison), play with pace. The frame rate changes from 24fps to 60fps as the characters walk into the foreground, the slow motion not only giving us a chance to register the shift from high-school comedy to full-scale espionage, but also to enjoy the moment with these characters who’ve now become a pretty big deal. It’s really satisfying to know that the filmmakers paid such attention to small details.
The soundtrack is vital to these sequences: a helicopter landing in the desert in slow motion at 60fps wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t underscored by Fatboy Slim’s euphoric Right Here, Right Now. This was one of Levy’s conscious choices and one he had to fight hard to keep the song linked to the sequence.
He later talked about how glad he was that he’d kept his first choice for the song in: it’s become one of the most iconic parts of the film, and it’s rare now that a director would have so much creative input on scoring a film at this level. I also love that the chopper becomes such a focus of the film’s third act, and you’d never know that the final third of the script had been rewritten during the scripting and production process.
And in case there’s any doubt as to the veracity of the stunt: it’s real. “We landed that chopper damn close to Paul,” Levy laughs in the director’s commentary. “Maybe a little too close.”
It wouldn’t be the same film without a lot of refining
Big Fat Liar wouldn’t be the film we know today if it wasn’t for a rigorous production process involving rewrites, focus groups, test screenings, audience feedback, and spontaneous genius. The line about a little blue man? It was completely improvised. Levy and the whole crew can thank that one, inspired extra for ad-libbing the most vital part of their marketing campaign. It’s pure gold.
Marty Wolf and Jason’s characters were also refined throughout rewrites. Jason was much more unlikeable to begin with (though I don’t know how anyone couldn’t love Frankie Muniz.) Gradually they turned him into someone a little more sympathetic, if not entirely honest. Wolf, meanwhile, faced much higher stakes in one of the original shoots. His final speech was re-shot as earlier versions were too tragic, ‘like a dethroned King Lear losing everything.’ Keeping things light-hearted, he just becomes a bit of a disarmed scumbag, clutching his toy monkey, Mr Funnybones.
From a film that started life as the draft ‘Lost and Found’, it not only gained a much more memorable and meaningful title, and swapped the main characters from two 14-year-old boys to a platonic boy/girl friendship, which expanded it out to a female audience too. It also becomes a hugely rewarding watch because it puts a mirror up and asks us about our own relationship to the truth. In the words of Jason Shepherd: “The truth? It’s not overrated.”
Big Fat Liar is pure, nostalgic joy
When I rewatched Big Fat Liar this year, it felt like I’d taken a trip to California and even back into my childhood. You can share in the nostalgia: Buzzfeed even invites you to find out which character you are. I don’t know what it is, if not pure escapism.
I don’t have time or space to unpick every small gem in as much detail as I’d like — Wolf has a wall montage as a shrine dedicated to himself; he calls Jason ‘Ebert’ after criticising his story. Just take it from me: I picked up so many little nods and gags from the directors that I didn’t register as a child, and that’s elevated the film to a new level of genius for me.
Above all else, Big Fat Liar’s biggest strength is by far its ability to laugh at itself, and its directors making fun of themselves and their work. I wish more films were made purely out of love for their subject — the enthusiasm is what makes the film so authentic, so addictive, and such a joy to watch.