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MOVIE REVIEW : What Might Have Been in ‘Big Time’

Times Film Critic

The audacity and inventiveness that lit up every minute of Tom Waits’ concerts at the Wiltern last November was reason enough to be on the lookout for “Big Time” (at the Nuart for one week), the film that grew from that tour.

It certainly gets off to an inspired start: a Waits surrogate, who may be the infamous Frank, of “Franks Wild Years,” prepares for bed at slightly past 6 a.m. New Year’s Day wearing satin Chinese pajamas, his eyeshade at the ready.

He throws a drape over the television set, the way you soften a bedroom light with a chiffon scarf, touches himself up with his electric razor then, on a whim, tries switching the shrouded TV’s channels with it. Half a dozen or so patented Waits characters appear, first on the screen, then filling the room. It’s a concert subplot involving a guy who works at the theater, ushering an unseen audience, taking tickets, working the spotlight.

But having filled the stage with His People, Waits, whom The Times’ Don Waller once described as the poet laureate of the human holding tank, and his director and frequent collaborator Chris Blum get entirely too ingenious for their own good.

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They trick out the production with video diversions. Extraneous characters barge in just as some of the most powerful numbers are building. Why do we want to switch to the men’s room, watching a Waits’ sharpster flip cards into a silk top hat, when Waits himself is on the stage and that’s all we want to see or hear? If Waits and Blum thought that not enough was going on and we needed a little diversion, they were wrong.

What’s maddening is that the poetry is so good, the songs (like the bittersweet “Time”) so beautiful or so sassy or doleful that they need nothing more than their original staging. And not one of these whirling bits of camera sleight-of-hand is as telling as the great original show.

The songs here are packed in from three albums, “Swordfishtrombones,” “Rain Dogs” and “Franks Wild Years.” You remember Frank? Hung up his wild years on a nail he drove right through his wife’s forehead; indulged in a spot of arson then headed off for the big time. His wife’s chihuahua made him do it, the one with the skin condition.

You’ll put up with a lot for stories like this. For the cautionary item about virgin birth, culled from a “Dear Abby” column. For song lines straight from life experience, “Never buy umbrellas ‘cause there’s always one around.” Or even for the pure joy of watching Waits double-jointedly pounding a piano in a white suit and an Adolphe Menjou mustache. For some that may be enough. It’s when you think what could have been, given that febrile night at the Wiltern, that the melancholy sets in.

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‘BIG TIME’

An Island Visual Arts presentation of a Vivid production. Producer Luc Roeg. Executive producer Chris Blackwell. Director Chris Blum. Camera Daniel Hainey. Editor Glenn Scantlebury. Stage show concept Kathleen Brennan, Tom Waits. Line producer Lucy Phillips. With Waits, Musicians Michael Blair, Ralph Carney, Greg Cohen, Marc Ribot, Willie Schwartz.

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).

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