When droopy office worker Peter (Marcus Thomas) finds himself cast as the lead in the Portland Community Theater’s Cyrano de Bergerac with absolutely no theater experience, he gets a much needed boost. Before he knows it, he’s hanging out with his fellow actors, standing up for himself at work, and generally having a wonderful time on his road to self-improvement. But, something happens halfway through Peter’s journey that shifts Al Corley’s Bigger Than the Sky, new to DVD without extras, from an adorable tale of self-discovery through community theater to an ode to theater itself.
The problems start when theater director Edwina (Claire Higgins) comes to her senses about Peter and decides to fire him in favor of Ken (Sean Astin), a theater veteran who, though pompous, can at least deliver dialogue without choking. Edwina recasts Peter as an extra, right about the same time that Corley moves him from the film’s focus to a supporting player. While it might make sense for Edwina to change her mind about the direction of her play, it makes none whatsoever for Corley to do the same.
Here’s why: when Peter is cast as Cyrano, his costars in the play, Michael (John Corbett) and Grace (Amy Smart) decide to teach him how to act the part by showing him a bit of off-stage adventure. Michael takes him out in the middle of the night to perform college-style pranks on other actors, while Grace makes like she’s falling for him. They do this to illustrate art as imitation of life, something theater star Kippy (Alan Corduner) tells the Cyrano cast at their first rehearsal: It’s his desire, he says, “Never to [speak] a line that I have not heard with my own heart.”
Well, Grace’s coming on to Peter might help give him the right kind of passion in her bedroom, but it doesn’t help him on stage. Neither does Michael’s attempt to turn him into a party animal. And when this plot is exposed as a failure (Peter’s acting still sucks), the film dumps the whole idea. Peter is soon excised from the lead, and his new pal Michael is attempting to swordfight him backstage over jealousy about his closeness to Grace. The point of the art-imitating-life scenario becomes little more than a trick to allow the Cyrano-inspired love triangle that carries through the remainder of the film.
Only it doesn’t. When the love story heats up, Corley changes his mind again, and the film turns into a behind the scenes laugh-a-thon about opening night preparations. Perhaps it’s asking too much, but shouldn’t this set-up pay off? When Peter eventually gets his way, so much has happened that has had so little to do with him, that it’s surprising to see him even attempt to help out these people who have wronged him so greatly. Edwina has destroyed his dreams in favor of pleasing audiences, Grace is back in the arms of Michael, and no one cares to ask Peter what he’s going to do after his hard work on his lead role caused him to quit his job.
The movie treats theater people like gods, then dumps them lower than slime as they boost and slam Peter’s obviously fragile self-worth to get what they want. The actors (especially Michael, who, according to Grace, makes it his job to bang any young ingénue who fancies herself an actress), walk a fine line between arty and callous, shouting and pouting their way to opening night success.
Peter is little more than an occasion for trotting out the same old theater philosophies showcased in a million other films, from Noises Off (1992) and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) to Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Illuminata (1998). All the world’s a stage, there are no small parts, and on and on. Bigger than the Sky starts off with its heart in the right place and ends up with almost none at all.