There’s a gross amount of casual wealth flashed in Big Little Lies, the latest limited series from HBO. Reese Witherspoon picks her daughter up from elementary school nonchalantly carrying a Birkin bag as if it’s a tote from the grocery store. Nicole Kidman has a separate closet for her shoes with a lighting fixture that would make David LaChapelle jealous. Laura Dern’s six-year old daughter wears a Burberry dress. Nearly every domicile shown is MTV Cribs-worthy. Based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty, the miniseries constructs its own little world (set in Monterey) by flashing this wealth to emphasize the fact that most people living in this world don’t have any real problems. Big Little Lies paints Monterey as the type of place where moms are bothered by the fact that the neighbor’s kid’s iPad has more memory than her kid’s. There’s a great basis for a satirical look at petty competition in wealthy communities here and Big Little Lies is in part just that. But it’s also a murder mystery, and a Lifetime-esque melodrama, and a work of subtle feminism, and a surreal revenge fantasy, and a statement on domestic violence, and an anti-bullying infomercial. Big Little Lies is all these things simultaneously, and therein rests its core flaw. While the series is occasionally thought-provoking and always pretty to look at, director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Richard E. Kelly are unable to balance the ambition of the source material. The result is a strange blend of Pretty Little Liars and Desperate Housewives, only with uber-famous actresses and a bunch of f-words.
Brief discussion of plot details from the first five episode of ‘Big Little Lies’ is included here, but fear not, this is spoiler-free.
This isn’t your typical murder mystery. Not only do we not know who the killer is, we don’t even know who was killed. Something with fatal consequences went down at Trivia Night at the elementary school, and our principle players were involved. Most nonlinear mystery narratives show us what happened and then find their story through what drove it to happening. Big Little Lies doesn’t want you to know anything. The inherent flaw with this concept is that with so little known about the eventual murder, it’s very difficult to look at what happens along the way within the context the show wants you to. There are some brief post-murder interviews with witnesses thrown in a few times per episode that attempt to function as a Sophoclean chorus; but many of them are for comedic relief, and they’re all insignificant. I often find myself forgetting about the murder entirely while watching. There’s enough intriguing stuff going on with various subplots for that to be just a minor problem, but I worry about the ultimate payoff.
Luckily, the lead performers in Big Little Lies are all in such fine form that the show is always watchable. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is a wealthy mom on her second marriage. She’s viewed as a bit of a primadonna amongst her peers. She resents many things, most notably working “career moms” like Renata (Laura Dern, fantastic as always). Madeline is grappling with her current place in the world. Her oldest daughter seems to be more comfortable talking to her new stepmom (Zoe Kravitz). So in a struggle for purpose, she volunteers at a local theatre and takes serious interest in the new-to-town Jane (more on her in a sec) and takes self-congratulatory pride in her position on social issues. Madeline is the type of person to go on and on about the plight of minorities in the working class as she sips a $6 latte in her Bentley. Madeline loving to hear herself talk so much leads to a lot of frustrating exposition, but Witherspoon has so much energy and chirpiness here that she manages to navigate the terrain. She plays Madeline with this perfect blend of emptiness and childlike excitement, wide-eyed and emotive at times, melancholic at others. Five episodes, her work is nothing short of masterful. She should dominate all the limited series awards the way Sarah Paulson did last year for The People vs. O.J. Simpson.
A subplot concerning mom beef between Madeline and Renata is given a two-episode arc. Jane’s son Ziggy was accused of hurting Renata’s daughter Amabelle, so when Amabelle’s birthday comes around, apparently a lavish annual event, Renata invites everyone in the class except. Madeline, a social justice warrior straight out of Saks Fifth, will not stand for this treatment of her new pal Jane. She forbids her daughter from going to the party and even gets a stretch limo and a dozen tickets to Disney on Ice, taking many of the popular kids who’d otherwise be at the party with her. The climactic sequence of this subplot is absolutely ridiculous. Scenes of the Disney on Ice crew sipping champagne and singing Fleetwood Mac in a limo (apparently these first-graders know every word to “Dreams”) are cut together with a very agitated Renata at the party that seems to be going just fine for everyone else. We’re supposed to believe this all will play a role in the murder but watching it unfold is just weird. This schadenfreude amongst one-percenters doesn’t have enough meat on its bones to manufacture real tension. The satire doesn’t work because it’s simultaneously trying to manufacture that tension. But as with all the strange storytelling choices made, the actresses hold it together. There are few things more entertaining to watch than an agitated Laura Dern.
Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a young and not particularly wealthy single mom who moves to Monterey “for the schools”. She is so wildly different from every other character in the show both in terms of appearance and personality. It’s clear from the onset she has a dark past and is trying to escape something. Being embraced by Madeline from the onset certainly helps, even if Madeline just views Jane as a charity case. We learn in the third episode that Jane was raped, and that her son Ziggy is a product of the rape. The weight this has on her is emphasized by nightmarish sequences of her killing her attacker and even herself. Jane’s story very quickly becomes less about fitting into the community and more about getting revenge on her attacker when Madeline *thinks* she found him on the internet. It’s safe to assume the rape will have some impact on the series’ endgame. Woodley plays the part very well despite her dialogue concerning the rape often being cringe-worthy. She’s such a gifted young actress, capable of seeming so normal even with her all-world beauty. It’s the eyes. She’s quite good at saying a lot without actually saying anything.
The last of the “big three” ladies on Big Little Lies is Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Kidman plays most scenes lifelessly, but that’s exactly what the role requires. She’s trapped in a physically abusive marriage (her husband is played in a one-note manner by Alexander Skarsgård, who continues to function as eye candy and nothing more). Celeste doesn’t like being a full-time mommy and she misses her legal work. She’s best friends with Madeline but it’s hard to tell why. We get into Celeste’s psyche via therapy sessions; but these scenes are completely unnecessary given we can tell what she’s thinking in real-time through Kidman’s choices as an actress. Big Little Lies doesn’t necessarily violate the “show don’t tell” rule of storytelling in this regard. It certainly does a fine job of showing why Celeste feels the way she feels. Unfortunately, it then proceeds to have her tell us explicitly how she feels. So it shows, and then tells. It’s a waste of a perfectly good Nicole Kidman performance. The worst thing The Sopranos ever did was inspire writers to lean way too heavily on therapy scenes as a way to make up for questionable character work in other scenes. But, while they’re pointless and repetitive, the therapy scenes in Big Little Lies are always watchable because Kidman is Kidman.
Every episode is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and anyone familiar with his other work would notice so even without the credits. He structures scenes that bounce between quick dreamy montages and close-ups in real time. He uses character’s choice of music as narrative device. He blocks most of his scenes so that the lovely scenery can also be put on display. Vallée is a gifted filmmaker, even if his style lacks the verve required for this story and can be a bit heavy-handed at times. He’s just out of his element here: trying to turn a murder mystery into a multi-pronged character study, attempting to mix biting satire and dark drama into the perfect cocktail. There are so many things happening (I have barely mentioned the series’ other big mystery, who’s bullying poor Amabelle?) that Vallée’s jack-of-all-trades approach makes him seem like a master-of-none. I’ve seen his films. I know that’s not the case. This just isn’t the right material for him.
But through the opulent photography and grade-A performances contained herein, Vallée finds enough with Big Little Lies to create a fun viewing experience. It may be shallow. It may strike out in its attempts at cohesive thematics. It may really be nothing more than a mildly clever made-for-TV murder mystery. But, again, it is always watchable. The work of Witherspoon, Woodley, Kidman, Dern, and Kravitz makes for addictive viewing. The series itself being popular and acclaimed is a testament to the power of great acting. With lesser performances, Big Little Lies would be laughably terrible. It’s very similar to another HBO limited series, The Night Of, in that sense. If you buy an actor’s performance, you naturally overlook weak dialogue and questionable narrative decisions. Great acting is a cloak. On Big Little Lies, that cloak is probably made by Hermès, and it’s damn sure effective.