Frankie Muniz, of the small mouth that moves mountains, may not wear well as he inches into adulthood.
The shelf life for the brand of heroic incorrigibility he sells on the Fox network's "Malcolm in the Middle"--cocky, calculating, strutting with a sense of middle-class entitlement--tends to expire the day after adolescence. By his 20s, he could be sidelined to playing smart-aleck flash-in-the-pans like Romeo's self-destructive cousin Mercutio (or Riff, his 1950s variant in "West Side Story"). By his 40s, he could be reduced to courtroom cameos as corporate fall guys in "Enron: The Miniseries."
For now, he gets to play quick-witted superdudes like Jason Shepherd, the eponymous tale-spinner of "Big Fat Liar." This 14-year-old operator from anytown, Michigan, has raised pathological lying into a lifestyle, if not an art. Putting his surfeit of imagination to practical use, young Jason devises a self-referential English composition that is apparently so engaging and original that is stolen by ruthless Hollywood producer Marty Wolf (Paul Giamatti), whom he accidentally encounters en route to school. When Jason sees an advance trailer for a movie that was obviously ripped off from his paper, he does what any enterprising 14-year-old with a supplementary Visa card would do: He grabs his perky best friend (Amanda Bynes from Nickelodeon's "The Amanda Show") and absconds to Los Angeles to confront the enemy.
The better part of "Big Fat Liar" is a succession of humiliating traps that Jason sets for his Wolf, played by Giamatti with a carnivorous cartoonishness that sets the tone for the whole picture. It's a sugared-up Hollywood revenge fantasy, "The Player" by way of "Willy Wonka." The true measure of the film's innocence (and contradictory signals) is that the conniving Jason is ultimately too green and naive to demand royalties: All he wants is for Wolf to call his dad and verify the legitimacy of his stolen composition.
This doesn't prevent Jason from marshaling everyone that Wolf has ever wronged and launching an offensive worthy of Gen. Patton. Would that the picture's sass were half as fun as Jason's brass. But screenwriter Dan Schneider and director Shawn Levy substitute volume and primary colors for humor and bite. Granted, it's a kids' flick, but kids today have enough savvy about the movie industry to report for Variety.
In place of toothy industry satire, we get a lifetime supply of Giamatti in screeching overdrive and a quaint notion of studio back lots, in which extras dressed as aliens, cowboys and spear-carriers can be found milling about between takes in the same dusty alley.
Muniz and Bynes give the impression that they're actually enjoying themselves, which helps a lot. One would love to see what they do with real characters, instead of two more movie kids stricken with a case of terminal vivacity.
MPAA rating: PG, for some language.
'Big Fat Liar'
Frankie Muniz...Jason Shepherd
Paul Giamatti...Marty Wolf
Amanda Detmer...Monty Kirkham
Donald Faison...Frank Jackson
Universal Pictures presents a Tollin/Robbins production, in association with Mediastream Film, released by Universal. Director Shawn Levy. Producers Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins. Executive producer Michael Goldman. Screenplay by Dan Schneider, story by Dan Schneider & Brian Robbins. Cinematographer Jonathan Brown. Editors Stuart Pappe, Kimberly Ray. Costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays. Music Christopher Beck. Production designer Nina Ruscio. Art director Francis J. Pezza. Set decorator Dena Roth. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times