The Big White, starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, and Giovanni Ribisi, is set in a post-Northern Exposure movie and tv show dreamland where quirky characters living in quaint and eccentric small towns stumble half-comically, half-sadly through small misadventures, searching for a modest bit of happiness and at least a glimmer of understanding about how to make their lives a little better.
You Can Count On Me, The Station Agent, Garden State, Doc Hollywood, Fargo, Mumford, Sunshine State, Cookie’s Fortune—Cookie’s Fortune is an interesting case because it was Altman’s influence on TV ensemble dramas like MASH, Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere that made Northern Exposure possible, which makes Cookie’s Fortune a case of influence as a game of telephone, the original message circling back on itself.
Some of these movies are darker than others, depending on how much to the fore they allow the facts of death and violence and the worst of life’s evils and sorrows. But, setting aside Fargo, even in the darkest of them, and Big White is among the darkest, the main characters, even the villains, are fairly decent and well-meaning types who don’t wish each other harm. Conflict arises from the clashing interests of if not good then not really bad people forced to act selfishly to save themselves or those they love from troubles that have come about simply because what’s good for one person may be bad for another. It’s not a case of good guys versus bad guys, but trying-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them against other trying-but-maybe not trying-as-hard-to-be good guys struggling to do what’s right for them.
Life is hard enough, these movies seem to be saying, even when it’s apparently going well, that for an hour and a half or two hours it’s ok for us to worry about the problems of some characters who aren’t threatened by war, natural disasters, or grinding poverty.
Life is hard enough for Paul Barnell. Barnell (Williams) is the owner of a failing travel agency. He’s up to his ears in debt. He has no prospects for digging himself out. There’s no one he can turn to for help. But his biggest problem, the one that may have partly caused the others by forcing him to take his focus and energy away from running his business, is that his wife, Margaret (Hunter), whom he adores, has gone crazy, and she shows signs of going even crazier. She’s falling down deep into herself, as if into a well. Paul has her by the tails of the pajamas she wears all the time, holding her back from the edge, but he feels his grip slipping.
Margaret can feel it slipping too. She is still sane enough to know she’s going insane and she’s terrified. So she’s convinced herself that she has developed Tourette Syndrome. Tourette is a disease, she’s reasoned, it’s an organic malfunction that can be controlled with medicine. If she has Tourette she’s not crazy, she’s just sick, and she’ll get better.
She spends a lot of her time mimicking what she thinks are the symptoms of Tourette. She’s not fooling anyone. But Paul does his best to make her believe he believes her.
Speaking of Northern Exposure, The Big White is also set in Alaska. But Northern Exposure’s Cecily was a part of Alaska. It had fitted itself into the landscape and assimilated and been assimilated by the Native American culture that was there ahead of it. In order to live there happily and feel at home in the place, all you had to do was get along with your neighbors and adapt to the rhythms of the place. You learned to love the weather. That was Fleischman’s problem. He refused to get along or adapt.
But the unnamed town that’s the setting for The Big White is a transplanted piece of Anywhere, America, an assemblage of strip malls and ranch house developments dropped on the tundra. The residents can’t adapt to living in Alaska because to go about their daily business requires them to live as if they’re in a suburb of Sacramento, Toledo, or Wilmington, Delaware.
Even in the coldest and snowiest of winters they’re forced to spend lots of time alone in their cars driving from isolated homes to isolated businesses. It’s a place that seems to have been designed to cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. The ads for Waikiki Airplanes and posters for Hawaiian vacations in Paul’s office emphasize the emptiness of the place and the futility of his business. The scenes of surfers and smiling, beautiful couples walking hand in hand on beaches don’t inspire a longing to get away. They only remind you of the cold and the snow outside and encourage a surrender to the bleakness. They don’t make you want to rush to the airport. They send you home to hide or to a bar to drink.
In such a place you wonder how it is that everyone hasn’t gone as crazy as Margaret. Then it dawns on you. They have.
Paul is convinced, naturally, that if he can just get Margaret out of here and take her someplace warm she’ll recover and return to her old self.
In order to leave and set up somewhere else, though, he needs to settle his debts.
He has only one asset, his brother’s million dollar life insurance policy that names Paul as beneficiary.
The good news is that Raymond Barnell has been missing for years, and, a wild guy, a heavy drinker, with a bad temper and a self-destructive streak, it’s a good bet he’s dead.
The bad news is that state law requires that a person be missing for seven years before they can be declared legally dead. Raymond has been gone only five. Paul has to wait two more years before he can collect on Raymond’s policy, unless, of course, Raymond’s dead body turns up.
Which it does.
Well, a dead body does.
A pair of legbreakers who, against their better nature, have upscaled their business to include murder for hire have done a guy for another, meaner thug named Dave—
First legbreaker (as they’re dumping the body): What’d he do anyway?
Second legbreaker: Don’t know. But Dave said if he did it again he’d break his neck.
It being winter and the ground being frozen and under a foot of snow, they can’t bury the body, and their being inexperienced in these matters and apparently never having watched The Sopranos, Gary and Jimbo aren’t sure how to dispose of the body. So they decide to leave it for the professionals. They drop it off in a dumpster.
Where Paul finds it.
Now all he’s got to do is pass the body off as his brother’s while deflecting the suspicions of the insurance investigator. The first part turns out to be easy. The insurance investigator is more of a problem.
Ted Watters (Ribisi) isn't just a crackerjack investigator, he's a desperate one. In his way, he's as desperate as Paul. Sent up to Alaska by his company's home office to whip the department into shape and train a promising rookie, Ted has begun to suspect that what was supposed to be the prelude to a promotion was actually a punishment for an unwitting mistake the company's never bothered to explain to him. He's been up here for thirteen months and is feeling permanently banished. When Paul shows up, attempting what Ted sees as obvious insurance fraud, he decides he can get himself back into corporate's good graces by exposing Paul and saving the company a million bucks.
He's astonished when the company execs accept Paul's story and decide to pay off. And he's frustrated when after he presses the case they tell him to forget about it. He determines to do the right thing and get the goods on Paul. This turns out to be a perverse and self-destructive move on his part and bizarrely makes him a villain in everyone else's eyes. He is shocked that doing his job, doing the honest thing, leads to his being not just disliked but physically punished by Fate. This is so obviously unfair that it just makes him more determined to bring Paul down.
Meanwhile, the thug who hired Gary and Jimbo doesn’t believe they’ve done their job. He demands visual proof. He wants to see the body. When they return to the dumpster to fetch it—apparently they’ve checked the pick-up schedule and expect it to still be where they left it—and find out it’s gone, it doesn’t take them long to figure out where it went.
They’re naive for hitmen, but they’re not stupid. They guess that the body must have been discovered by someone who uses the dumpster regularly, someone in one of the businesses nearby, learn that Paul has recently buried his “brother” whose body turned up mysteriously, and track him down. They break into his house, take Margaret hostage, and demand Paul return the body.
There is some black comedy in The Big White—I won’t tell you what Paul has to go through to pass the body off as his brother’s—
---but this is really a very sad and sweet little movie, mainly because of the loving marriage between Paul and Margaret that is at the movie’s heart and Williams’ and Hunter’s performances.
Hunter is adorable...and believably crazy. We get only a single glimpse of Margaret as she used to be. In a home video Paul took on one of their vacations, a waiter spills a drink on her and she reacts with good grace and great good humor. What Hunter does is make us realize that in going crazy Margaret hasn’t changed that much. She is the same person we see in the video, the same person Paul fell in love with 15 years ago, only more so. It’s a terrifying and terribly sad definition of madness as an intensification of personality. Going mad means becoming more like yourself.
To a lesser degree, but still to a degree of madness, this is what has happened to both Paul and Ted too. Each man has become more like himself. And the more you are lost in yourself the less room you have for other people. Paul will always have room for Margaret, but Ted is squeezing the woman he loves out of his life, and he definitely doesn't have any room for Paul and his troubles except as means to solving his own problem.
Williams does a very nice job of using that puppy dog quality of his that can be so annoying in his Patch Adams-Love Me Love Me roles to real effect beyond playing for the camera's affections. He turns it exclusively on Margaret, making it into a blanket of niceness that he attempts to keep wrapped around her to protect her from her own fear. This frees him up to be less than nice with the other characters. Williams allows Paul to be angry. Paul isn't a martyr. He isn't resigned to what's happening to him and Margaret. It's unfair and it's awful and it makes him furious, and he can barely keep his anger in check. The unfairness of it has also made him willing to be unfair, to return meanness with meanness, and to do whatever he has to do to save Margaret, up to the point of being willing to commit murder.
As Ted, Ribisi does something you don't see young American actors do very often. He plays a thirty year old as a full-fledged adult.
Ted likes his job, he's good at it, he works hard at what he does and he defines himself by himself by his work, and he carries himself accordingly. Overgrown college boys do not hold positions of trust and responsibility like the one Ted has earned. Ted is a man doing a man's job. He's sober, serious, responsible, disciplined, decent, honest, and nuts.
Ribisi makes no special pleas for his honest and decent character's honesty and decency or for any of his other virtues. Ted may be in the right, but he's doing the right thing for suspect reasons, reasons that border on mania if not outright madness, and Ribisi fixes his eyes in an unblinking beady-eyed stare that repels sympathy. He trusts enough in the character's basic attractiveness and in his own likability as a young leading man to play up Ted's unattractive side.
He also trusts in Alison Lohman as Ted's devoted girlfriend, Tiffany. Tiffany is a lovable character---the most lovable in the movie---and it helps that Lohman is as lovable as Tiffany's supposed to be. But Ribisi doesn't simply trust that we'll like Ted for Tiffany's sake. He understands that if Ted is to be liked he must learn to be likable, and he has only one person to learn it from, Tiffany.
Getting back to Northern Exposure, Ted is the character with Joel Fleischman's problem. Like Joel, he knows he would be happier if he would just relax and learn to get along with his new neighbors. But also like Flieschman, he knows that getting along and learning to like living where he's stuck living is a form of surrender. He doesn't want to like it there. He wants out of there, now.
So he resists anything and everything that might make him like it there. This includes Tiffany.
Tiffany loves him, but Ted refuses to love her back---or to admit that he does.
The more fool him.
Tiffany runs a psychic hotline out of the house she and Ted share. She is a good-natured fraud, untroubled in her conscience by what Ted calls her "carny scam," because she believes her callers understand that she's a fake. She and they pretend together that she's a psychic so they don't have to admit to themselves that they ought to be smart enough to solve the problems they bring to her on their own.
The real point is, though, that their problems are problems and she does help solve them. What Tiffany is is a talented psychologist and practical nurse who didn't have the money or luck to go to college and earn an actual degree in the field she was born for.
Ted is blind to her talent, or pretends to be, and even more willfully blind to the fact that her most challenging client, the person who most needs her help and advice, is himself.
Lohman, who I was afraid would disappear into Hollywood movie starlet-dom after her wonderful turn as the young Jessica Lange to Ewan McGregor's young Albert Finney in Big Fish, plays Tiffany without any trace of a starlet's vanity. Tiffany is pretty because Lohman is pretty, but the fact doesn't seem to interest either one of them. Tiffany is smart too, but that doesn't matter all that much to her either. And she's good-hearted, another fact about herself Tiffany doesn't overvalue. She doesn't believe that her good-heartedness has earned her any special favors from life. This is the big difference between her and Ted and between her and Paul. She doesn't feel owed.
Learning not to feel owed is the first lesson Ted needs to learn from her.
I hope I'm getting at what Ribisi and Lohman manage to do so well by saying that watching Ted's slow realization and conversion is like watching Lohman teach Ribisi how to dance. She's an excellent and enthusiastic teacher, but patient and slow, and he's trusting enough and modest enough to let her lead.
It's to director Mark Mylod's and screenwriter Collin Friesen's great credit, as well as to Ribisi's, that they leave Ted still in the process of learning when the movie ends. Ted has only progressed so far that he's no longer stepping on her toes. He's got a ways to go before he can take over on the dance floor.
The movie doesn't end with Ted and Tiffany exactly duplicating the loving married couple, Margaret and Paul. Ted hasn't completely given in. But his last line makes clear that he'll get there.
Tiffany (taking Ted's arm as the snow falls on them): Don't you just love this weather.
Ted (looking at the sky warily but hopefully): Learning to.
Woody Harrelson makes a vivid and terrifying appearance bringing kind of violence and menace that is usually kept just out of range in these Northern Exposure-influenced movies and shows. His character is another one who has gone nuts by becoming too much like himself. Unfortunately, in his case it means becoming more of a monster of selfishness and anger.
I think Mylod let him overdo it a bit, but Harrelson gets his final scene just right nonetheless, and it's a powerful and moving moment that leads to another sad and perfect little grace note by Williams.
Tim Blake Nelson and W. Earl Brown as the erstwhile hitmen, Gary and Jimbo, are a lot of fun, especially when Gary attempts to make Margaret admit she's faking her Tourette symptoms because he likes her and is concerned about her. Margaret calls Gary and Jimbo the Gay Mafia, but it's never clear that the characters are lovers. They are, however, married, in their fashion. They are a devoted couple and the small, quiet ways Brown and Nelson show the men's domestic familiarity and their affection are both funny and touching.
The Big White. Directed by Mark Mylod. Written by Collin Friesen. Starring Robin Williams, Holly Hunter, Giovanni Ribisi, Alison Lohman, Woody Harrelson, Tim Blake Nelson, and W. Earl Brown. Echo Bridge Entertainment in association with Capitol Films. 2005.