Some movies just want to blow shit up and feed you cheesy one-liners, plus the occasional bit of eye-candy. And then there are movies that really want to be clever and meaningful. When a clever movie fails, it fails harder.
Like the "nerd noir" movie The Big Bang, which hits select theaters and cable on-demand today. (The film's also coming to DVD and Blu-ray in the next couple weeks.) This movie desperately wants to be a Tarantino film, with hints of David Lynch, and its ambition bleeds out of every pore. You have to admire the scope of The Big Bang's ambition, even as it falls flat on its face.
The question is: Would you rather watch an ambitious failure, or a movie that aims low and hits the mark? The answer to that question will determine how much you'll enjoy The Big Bang. Spoilers ahead...
At its core, The Big Bang is a genre mashup. It's a straight-up, hard-boiled detective story, barely updated from Raymond Chandler's great novels. And onto those pulp fiction bones, the movie grafts a story that dips into particle physics and the quest for the "God Particle." People give long speeches about physics, especially in the second half, and meanwhile every other line of dialogue is full of deep philosophical import. You can already imagine how people philosophizing about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and how you never really know what's going to happen next, could fit in with a noir detective yarn.
(For more on the background of the film, and director Tony Krantz's admitted ambition to be another Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch, read this pretty informative New York Times article.)
There are also a ton of weird nerdy physics in-jokes jammed into the story. A porn producer (played by Snoop Dogg) is making an X-rated film called "The Black Hole," in a studio called Schrodinger's Warehouse. The only diner in a small town is called Planck's Constant Diner. Etc. etc.
Here's a vaguely NSFW clip featuring Snoop Dogg:
So Antonio Banderas plays Ned Cruz, a weary private dick who wants to get out of this tough racket after a client lights his "albino little person" lover on fire. (Which is the set-up for the one-liner, "That white dwarf just went supernova." Yeah.) But he takes on One Last Job — to find a missing stripper for a lovestruck boxer who just got out of prison. Everywhere Ned goes, dead bodies pile up, and he starts to wonder if the missing stripper even exists. Finally, his search leads him to a small town where a rich hippie geek has built a supercollider and plans to recreate the conditions a few milliseconds after the Big Bang.
But the movie's investigation is really into the meaning of existence, and what holds us together — is it the God Particle? Is it love? Is it greed? Ned is full of wise sayings, but also not sure what he believes.
Sadly, The Big Bang currently has a zero-percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I can't say I disagree with those critics.
Lest I leave you with an overly bad impression of the film, it genuinely is clever and sometimes outright brilliant. The "particle physics fetish" sex scene is just as loopy as it looks in the trailer. There are some nifty twists and turns, and Cruz does come up with some clever bits of detective work. And I have a huge soft spot in my heart for movies (and books) that abandon naturalistic dialog for dialog that wants to be poetic, or deep, or just excessively nerdy. Also, there's a nice poetry in the fact that the psychotic boxer's true love turns out to be someone else who's, shall we say, mentally unusual. That's a nice twist.
A lot of the time, you can just sort of squint and get a glimpse of the strange, funny, daring movie that The Big Bang wants to be, and it's genuinely sort of inspirational.
I think that the problem with The Big Bang, though, is that it feels too much like a genre pastiche rather than something that uses old genre tropes to tell a story. And when you're dealing with a genre that's been spoofed and recycled and updated and reinvented as many times as pulp detective fiction, your pastiche risks looking like a pastiche of a pastiche. Too much of The Big Bang's energy goes into proving that you can blend cutting-edge physics and existentialist philosophizing with a detective story — and not enough energy goes into making that story thrilling or new in its own right.