Review: ‘Steal Big, Steal Little’

Filmmaker Andrew Davis spins a bloated fairy tale of two brothers -- alternately good and greedy -- in "Steal Big, Steal Little." The tug of war and tug of hearts in this epic comedy are shoveled out in huge clumps that might best be described as Capra-grotesque.

Filmmaker Andrew Davis spins a bloated fairy tale of two brothers — alternately good and greedy — in “Steal Big, Steal Little.” The tug of war and tug of hearts in this comedy might best be described as Capra-grotesque. The film’s arcane sensibility is unlikely to connect with a contempo audience, so domestic commercial prospects are only fair to poor, and foreign playdates are apt to encounter choppy seas.

Ruben Martinez (Andy Garcia) is a dreamer with a big heart who, much to the chagrin of his slick, souless twin brother, Robby (also Garcia), inherits a vast spread in Santa Barbara from their wealthy step-mother. The bad bro has been skimming money from the estate and is in cahoots with local muck-a-mucks to take the land and create a sprawling real estate development.

Story is relayed in flashback, with Ruben telling a cable reporter how, through intimidation, bribery and chicanery, Robby and his monied minions pushed him and his extended family off the land. Every time they sought to reverse the process, the corrupt legal system, in the pocket of the rich, shot them down.

But the age-old saw that justice will prevail imbues every sinew and frame of this soppy tale. Davis, who co-worte the script with Lee Blessing, Jeanne Blake and Terry Kahn, steals big but reaps little from an arsenal of Capra greats of the 1930s. The new outing has neither the incisive social commentary nor the antic wit of those inspirations.

At its core, the piece is a fable and a comedy. The stylistic dilemma is that the filmmaker makes his characters and situations all too real, undermining the more fanciful elements. In the crazy quilt, simplicity is swamped in elaborate set pieces and the spry shenanigans come off flat-footed. The large cast tries valiantly to elevate the material. Garcia struggles to keep Ruben from becoming cloyingly sincere and Robby a black-hearted villain. He succeeds more often than not, but the material is too often at cross-purposes with the intent.

About the only member of the east to hit the right note is Alan Arkin, as an opportunist who weighs in with the underdogs and learns the true meaning of decency and friendship. He strikes the perfect blend of cynicism, sincerity and simpatico.

The film makes the most of the dazzling seaside vistas and lush verdant tracks of Southern California.

Steal Big, Steal Little

Production

A Savoy Pictures release of a Chicago Pacific Ent. production. Produced by Andrew Davis, Fred Caruso. Executive producer, Mel Pearl. Co-executive producer, Larry Jackson. Directed by Davis. Screenplay, Davis, Lee Blessing, Jeanne Blake, Terry Kahn, story by Davis , Teresa Tucker-Davies, Frank Ray Perilli.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Frank Tidy; editors, Don Brochu, Tina Hirsch; music, William Olvis; production design, Michael Haller; art direction, Mark E. Zuelzke; set decoration, Gene Serdena; costume design, Jodie Tillen; Dolby sound; assistant director, Matt Earl Beesley; casting, Amanda Mackey Johnson, Cathy Sandrich. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival, Sept. 8, 1995. MPPA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 135 min.

With

Ruben Partida Martinez/Robby Martin - Andy Garcia Lou Perilli - Alan Arkin Laura - Rachel Ticotin Eddie Agopian - Joe Pantoliano Bonnie Martin - Ally Walker Judge Myers - David Ogden Stiers Sheriff Otis - Charles Rocket Nick Zingaro - Richard Bradford Reed Tyler - Kevin McCarthy
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