Snowed under by misjudgment on every level, “The Big White” is DOA. Despite a cast that generally reads like an indie production’s wish list, pic’s tendency to liberally borrow from the Coen Brothers playbook of comic mayhem is exceeded only by its lack of sense of what’s actually funny. Robin Williams understandably looks miserable as a financially drowning travel agent in a remote Alaskan town, exercising fraud to score $1 million. With an awards-qualifying Los Angeles opening set for mid-December, general commercial prospects, theatrically or ancillary, are frigid.
Paul (Williams), a beaten-down travel agent, is knee-deep in debt and living with wife Margaret (Holly Hunter) who appears to have Tourette’s Syndrome. Paul’s woes compound when his insurance company, in the person of dogged agent Ted (Giovanni Ribisi), rejects his claim to collect $1 million on his brother’s body, missing for five years.
A corpse dumped by gangster henchmen Gary (Tim Blake Nelson) and Jimbo (W. Earl Brown) is conveniently discovered by Paul, who uses it to stage evidence of brother Raymond’s grisly death. Local cops sign off on the death, and Paul even arranges a funeral to make it look proper, but ambitious Ted — desperate for a promotion out of this Alaskan backwater to the Lower 48 — sniffs out fraud like a bloodhound and won’t let Paul receive his payout check until he’s dotted every i.
The influence of the Coens’ “Fargo” informs nearly every frame of “The Big White,” and it seems that in the interest of doing something different, screenwriter Colin Friesen and director Mark Mylod decide to pile on whimsy upon oddity upon absurdity. Quicker than you can say “plot twist,” who should show up but violence-prone Raymond (Woody Harrelson), complicating Paul’s plans. Gary and Jimbo kidnap Margaret as leverage to recover their corpse, but because these are goofy henchmen, the trio bond cute in Margaret’s kitchen.
A finale on a barren ice field brings every key character together for a tiresome exchange of gunfire and emotional outpouring, concluding on a note that hardly justifies the film’s nature.
Williams strains to project an air of tragedy, and Hunter’s performance as his foul-mouthed wife is best forgotten. Only Ribisi has a bead on his role’s straight-arrow absurdity, while Nelson, Harrelson and Alison Lohman (as Ted’s spacey g.f.) add to the pic’s comic woes.
James Glennon’s lensing in near Arctic environs is less effective than it should be, and other production credits are mediocre.