Friday, June 25, 2010

Tall Tale

Directed by
Jeremiah Chechik
Written by Steve Bloom & Robert Rodat
Starring Patrick Swayze, Oliver Platt, Roger Alan Brown, Nick Stahl, Scott Glenn, Stephen Lang, Catherine O'Hara.
IMDB Entry

Sometimes you can spot a promising young director after a film or two, and think he has the chance for a long and successful career.  But that's not always the way it works out.  That the case for Jeremiah Chechik.

Chechik grew up in Montreal and made a splash with his first film:  National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.  While not as good as the first National Lampoon film, it was a solid hit, enough for him to get a little bit of clout.  His next film, Benny and Joon got critical raves and showed that Johnny Depp was more than just a pretty face.  And he continued this artistic success when Disney hired him to direct Tall Tale.

Subtitled The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, the movie is exactly what it says it is:  a tall tale.  In it, Daniel Hackett (Nick Stahl) is a preteen boy who feels he has outgrown his father's (Stephen Lang) stories of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, and other American legends.* But a mine operator, J. P.Styles (Scott Glenn) wants to buy the Hackett farm in Paradise Valley, and shoots and wounds Daniel's father.  Daniel runs away and finds himself in the Texas desert where he meets up with Pecos Bill (Patrick Swayze).  Bill goes to help out, and Paul Bunyan (Oliver Platt), John Henry (Roger Allen Brown), and Calamity Jane (Catherine O'Hara) soon take up the quest.

All the character are larger than life (often figuratively) and the film uses a broad acting style and a west where Pecos Bill can shoot off the trigger fingers of two desperados from a mile away, with only a trickle of blood. If you want to nitpick the film, you shouldn't be watching:  the point is that it's deliberately unrealistic**. The movie doesn't try for any fancy twists, but just the delights of a good story.

Patrick Swayze is perfectly cast as Pecos Bill; you can really believe he's a epic hero and he gets the modest strength of a western stereotypical hero just perfectly.  Nick Stahl makes for a very convincing Daniel, and it's always a joy to see Oliver Platt and Catherine O'Hara (especially when she's not playing a mom).

Despite some critical raves, though, the film flopped badly.  It had an anemic box office results.  It may just not have been flashy enough for modern audiences.  Plus, I'm sure few kids have heard about about Pecos Bill.  He probably didn't mean much to most of their parents; it was not something that really takes front and center as a story.

Of course, a film director can continue a career with a flop, but Chechik followed this with the pure disaster that was Diabolique.***  He then went on to the pointless film of The Avengers, another high-profile disaster.  Chechik has not directed a movie since.****

It's too bad.  He was far more promising in films when he started out.  Maybe with his TV success, he can return to projects like those he started out with.  Just keep him away from blockbusters.


*Actually, both Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan are "fakelore" -- stories that were created and passed off as authentic American folklore.  Bunyan was actually the mascot of an insurance company (there is some debate as to whether he was made up from actual logging tales, or out of thin air, but it's clear that the ad campaign is what popularized him with the general public).

**The IMDB counts as a goof that no one ever reloads their gun, a gold medalist for Missing the Point

***A complete and utter mess.  It was a mistake to remake Clouzot's Les Diaboliques in the first place, and the change in the ending not only trashed the original, but also trashed itself.

****He has worked successfully in TV, most notably as director and producer of the Great but Forgotten TV series, The Middleman, which shares a lot of the the philosophy of Tall Tale.  Currently, he's also directing episodes of Burn Notice.

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