Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
—Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle
John Cassavetes struggled long and hard against mainstream movies’ predilection for action-packed, slickly produced plots. And so, it’s distressing that his last film, Big Trouble, appears to capitulate to just that sort of formula.
At first glance, Big Trouble seems to be an uneven ode to Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). As in Wilder’s film, a femme fatale, Blanche Rickey (Beverly D’Angelo), convinces an insurance salesman, Leonard Hoffman (Alan Arkin), to murder her husband, Steve (Peter Falk), in order to collect a $5 million insurance policy. But a sharp insurance fraud investigator, O’Mara (Charles Durning), thwarts their plans, while Hoffman learns that Steve was never actually killed. And in this plot turn, Big Trouble initiates a theme that runs through all of Cassavetes’ work, that is, his interest in ruinous deceptions and failed relationships.
Typically, Cassavetes provides complex characters, whom we never entirely like, and refuses to explain fully their motivations. Big Trouble, however, is only concerned with investigating the basic deception. The intimate reality that lies beneath this scheming remains unseen.
Much of the film’s humor comes from its parodies of stereotypes. Devious Blanche is surely out of place in the 1980s ‘burbs, and as such, she embodies male anxieties about female fidelity and love. Both Leonard and Steve fall prey to her, unable to tell whether her seductions are genuine, or if there is anything genuine about her at all. Steve, in turn, is a parody of conventional masculinity. Dressed in jungle fatigues and hat, posed in pictures with rifles and slain animals, he is a Hemingway character come to life 50 years too late. In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes, Steve offers hen-pecked Leonard a potent Norwegian liqueur, calling it “really a man’s drink.” Leonard takes a large sip, then, unwilling to admit that he can’t handle it, nods approval as his gag reflex forces him to rid his mouth. Steve offers him another drink that might suit him more. But Leonard insists, in a gruff voice, “This was fine. This was plenty.”
But, despite such moments of humor and insight, the film is flat, even when referencing Cassavetes’ previous films. In a scene borrowing from A Woman Under The Influence (1974), Steve unloads a group of illegal Chinese workers at his house, then asks Blanche to cook them a quick meal. This recalls Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) similarly forcing his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) to cook for his lower-class sewer buddies. But unlike the earlier film that used the scene to examine the intricate dynamics between husband, wife, and co-workers, Big Trouble only makes a weak stab at humor, when Blanche says she will do anything for Steve and then delegates such work to her maid.
At its worst, the film seems less the work of a seasoned director than a pretentious film student overdosed on post-structural theory. Debord once wrote, “In a society of the spectacle, everything is image, even reality. All we seem to have left are references to other references.”
But for all his criticisms of the culture, Debord considered reality worth fighting for, a means to maintain a sense of human complexity and thoughtfulness. Cassavetes also explored the danger of the spectacle, exposing how individuals compromise their emotions and beliefs by adhering to mediated notions of “humanity.” Flimsy and frustrating, Big Trouble suggests that he finally gave up on reality; it’s a vague representation of a Cassavetes film. Unlike his other work, it only questions stereotypical, socially constructed roles to find out that, ultimately, there is nothing beneath them.