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Cowan, Not Cohen 

by Sheri Boggs

For starters, there's a masturbation joke in the first 10 minutes of the film. Also, there's a wonderfully kitschy luau-themed motel, complete with hula girl lamps and freaky faux bamboo nightstands. There are small-town strangers, both alluring and vaguely threatening, as well as a bowling ball bag that may or may not contain a human head. And Bud Cort. Yep. The same Bud Cort who was in the cult classic Harold and Maude.

But if this is starting to sound like yet another Coen Brothers project, perhaps something along the lines of Fargo meets The Big Lebowski, think again. Not only is The Big Empty a quietly hilarious new film from newcomer writer/director Steve Anderson, it's also a big point of departure for Spokane's own North by Northwest. Produced by the local production company's CEO, Rich Cowan, The Big Empty was also shot on location in Baker, Calif., by a North by Northwest crew and went through post-production here at the company's Spokane-based studio. The film opens this weekend at River Park Square.

North by Northwest initially made a name for itself by putting out such family-friendly fare as The Basket and Mel. But there have been recent and plentiful signs that these homegrown film producers have been aching to break out of the family room and maybe take up residence in the wet bar, or go outside for a much-needed smoke. In addition to all the sightings of one creepily magnetic James Spader this past summer, there have been recent forays into scary (Hangman's Curse) and now, indie.

The Big Empty opens as a schlubby would-be actor (Jon Favreau, who also directed this season's surprise hit Elf) herds his VW bus around a movie set to his non-acting job, and back home to his nondescript apartment. Having given himself the rather unfortunate stage name of "John Person," he spends his spare time practicing various smooth/sexy/cool expressions in the mirror and tallying up his mounting credit card bills. Despite his seeming isolation, John has nevertheless found time to meet several neighbors, including Muppet-voiced Grace (Chasing Amy's Joey Lauren Adams) and an aging Bud Cort as Neely, the loser-down-the-hall.

As John quickly discovers, losers-down-the-hall sometimes have complicated agendas. Neely knows more about his debt problems and nighttime self-gratification rituals than any neighbor has a right to know, and suddenly John finds himself on the sharp, pointy end of an offer he can't refuse. He's asked to be a courier in exchange for Neely's silence and quickly finds himself driving to Baker, Calif., with a locked suitcase and the promise of enough cash to take care of all of his financial problems should he successfully complete his mission: delivering the suitcase to a mysterious stranger named "Cowboy."

Besides Favreau, The Big Empty boasts the talents of Rachael Leigh Cook, Kelsey Grammer and Darryl Hannah, and it is one of the many small delights of this film that its cast seems happy to play against type. Darryl Hannah is completely unrecognizable in a role that has her looking more like a cross between Hilary Swank and Sandra Bullock; Grammer gets to deliver his lines for once with a sinister snap and none of Frasier's mollycoddling cadences. Adam Beach (who starred in Smoke Signals and will be at the film's Spokane premiere this weekend) is especially good as a love-crazed young hoodlum.

While the narrative is full of such noir elements as wise bartenders, beguiling jailbait and blackmail, The Big Empty also has its metaphysical moments. Half the town believes they sit on the edge of an alien "bus stop," and there are allusions to the emptiness of everyday going-through-the-motions contemporary life. Some of the shots, particularly of the Mojave Desert, are stunning, and in several places the filmmakers capture the strange and lonely beauty of small highway towns an hour or so before the sun comes up. Also, blue is more than just a color in this film; when it shows up, chances are it's for a good reason.

While The Big Empty could very easily have turned out to be just another indie project imitating other indie projects, such well thought-out visual motifs give it an added resonance and make it the kind of thing you find yourself musing about days later. And if this film is any indication, we're really looking forward to seeing more of North by Northwest's forays into unfamiliar territory. At the very least, it means we're getting some of those offbeat films that used to pass us over. The Big Empty opens in only three markets this week: New York, L.A. and Spokane.

Publication date: 11/20/03

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