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(2002) (Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti) (PG)

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Comedy: A young habitual liar sets out to prove that an unscrupulous Hollywood producer stole his school paper and is going to turn it into a movie.
Jason Shepherd (FRANKIE MUNIZ) is a normal 14-year-old who has one major problem - he makes up lies all of the time. When he does so to his eighth grade teacher, Mrs. Caldwell (SANDRA OH), about not writing an essay, he's busted when his parents, Harry (MICHAEL BRYAN FRENCH) and Carol (CHRISTINE TUCCI), prove him wrong.

Given one last chance and just a few hours to write that essay else he be sent to summer school, Jason writes a story entitled "Big Fat Liar" and then races to get it to his teacher before the deadline. Unfortunately, he runs directly into a limo containing Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (PAUL GIAMATTI), who wants nothing to do with the boy or his plight. Yet, when Jason accidentally leaves his essay in Marty's limo, the unscrupulous producer happens to read it and then realizes he's found his next film.

Meanwhile, with no one believing Jason's story about his missing essay, he's forced to go to summer school. One night, while attending a movie with his best friend, Kaylee (AMANDA BYNES), he sees a preview for a movie based on his story. With both his and Kaylee's parents out of town, the two kids hop a plane from Michigan to Los Angeles to confront Marty about stealing his idea.

Lying to limo driver Frank Jackson (DONALD FAISON) to get a ride around Hollywood and then to Universal Studio's back lot, the two discover that they must sneak in to see the busy executive who's currently shooting a movie starring Jaleel White (JALEEL WHITE) with the aid of veteran stuntman, Vince (LEE MAJORS), and Marty's personal assistant, Monty Kirkham (AMANDA DETMER).

With pressure from the new studio president, Marcus Duncan (RUSSELL HORNSBY), to deliver a hit, Marty has no time for Jason and his allegations, and basically tells him he's out of luck. Accordingly, and from that point on, Jason and Kaylee do what they can to make Marty's life miserable and convince him to call Jason's dad and tell him the truth about stealing Jason's story.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Considering all of the dreck that's been coming out of Hollywood for the past several years, one has to ponder why so many movies have to be so bad, as well as what factors might contribute to that condition. While some may accuse - and often rightly so - the director and performers - much of the blame can often be attributed to the original script and/or its many rewrites.

With some films, one even has to ask where in the world the writer or writers came up with the awful or stupid idea in the first place. Well, now we know with the release of "Big Fat Liar." In it, it's suggested that Hollywood producers are stealing their ideas from 8th graders and turning them into movies (and you wondered why so many films were juvenile in nature, mentality and content).

Only the filmmakers responsible for this moderately enjoyable kid-based film know where and/or how they came up with their idea, but a good guess is from the old "Boy who cried wolf" fable. Here, a chronic liar has told so many fibs that no one believes him when he claims a Hollywood producer took his school essay and plans on turning it into his latest film.

Having the villain not-so-coincidentally sporting the name "wolf" is about the level of cleverness on display here as the film is less a scathing satire on the Hollywood moviemaking machine than something of a combination of "Home Alone," "Spy Kids" and even "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back." Even so, there's enough offered for kids and even something for adults to make things zip along at a decent pace.

For kids, there's the young protagonist and his pretty friend who enact a combination of "Home Alone" slapstick and "Spy Kids" plotting to deliver some comedic comeuppance to the dastardly villain who purposefully overacts and reacts in an exaggerated fashion to get young viewers laughing. There's also the fantasy version of Hollywood where costumed extras intermingle, doors on one movie set open onto a completely different one, and the props department conveniently contains figures and props from many former Universal Studios pictures (the studio also produced this film).

For the adults in tow, as well as film buffs and critics, there's a smattering of "insider" jokes such as when the protagonist's young friend briefly poses as a receptionist, taking calls from a certain Mr. Sandler and asking Steven Soderbergh how he spells his last name. Then there are the recurring moments of Jaleel White (TV's "Family Matters") playing himself as an adult actor who becomes increasingly irritated about repeatedly being called Urkel (his nerdy character on TV).

Although there's nothing terribly clever, novel or surprising about what director Shawn Levy (making his feature film debut) and screenwriter Dan Schneider (also making his feature film debut) do with the material as their young hero obviously succeeds and learns his lesson about lying, it's relatively easy enough to sit through.

That will be especially true if you're a kid or one at heart who always wanted to get even with the bullies of the world. I personally would have preferred to see some additional material for adults, but since we're not the primary target audience, I can let that criticism slide a bit (although not entirely since many kid-based, computer animated films manage to entertain kids and adults alike).

As the protagonist and his sidekick, Frankie Muniz ("My Dog Skip," TV's "Malcolm in the Middle") and Amanda Bynes (TV's "The Amanda Show" and "All That") are generally okay and amiable enough in their roles, but don't get much help from their underwritten characters.

The performer who has the most fun is Paul Giamatti ("Planet of the Apes," "Man on the Moon") who obviously hams it up in full comedic glee as the snide and unscrupulous villain. Amanda Detmer ("The Majestic," "Saving Silverman") goes through the standard and predictable character arc as his long-suffering assistant, but Michael Bryan French ("I Still Know What You Did Last Summer") and Christine Tucci ("Big Night") as the hero's parents and Sandra Oh ("The Princess Diaries") as his teacher aren't around long enough to have much impact. Lee Majors ("Out Cold," TV's "The Bionic Man") and Donald Faison ("Remember the Titans," "Clueless") are present as others who participate in the retaliatory measures against the producer.

Not remotely realistic, but nevertheless moderately satisfying, "Big Fat Liar" turns out to be okay escapist entertainment for kids who aren't looking for much more than that. The film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed January 26, 2002 / Posted February 8, 2002

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