The startling thing about James Toback’s documentary The Big Bang is how much fun it is. Toback, director of Fingers, Exposed, and other luridly pretentious pop-literary melodramas (as well as the likable mainstream comedy The Pick-Up Artist), had a simple idea. He interviewed several dozen people and asked them about everything: sex, love, death, God, art, anxiety, the cosmos, youth, old age.
Toback is a terrific interviewer — he knows how to cajole and badger people sensitively. And he has shaped the responses into the best of all possible bull sessions, one that’s funny and moving and never bogs down. A few of the interviewees are names (or at least semi-famous): movie producer Don Simpson; basketball star Daryl Dawkins; restaurateur Elaine Kaufman. But most of them are just ordinary (if accomplished) folks who happen to be Toback’s acquaintances. In each case, you form strong early impressions of the people being interviewed — and then watch with surprise and delight as they prove you wrong.
A somber, middle-aged ex-gangster describes what a brutal character he could be. Then, when recalling the young girlfriend to whom he was devoted, his tone changes. Murderous jealousy mingles with the most astonishing tenderness; just when you thought you had the guy pegged, he eludes you. A sprightly medical student makes a passionate case for religious conservatism — without it, she says, there would be nothing holding us back from chaos. It’s a wise thought, yet perhaps the last one you’d expect to hear from someone so vibrant and young.
Despite its cosmic pun of a title, The Big Bang isn’t really about The Meaning of Life. It’s more like 25 slices of life; those in the audience are put in the position of privileged eavesdroppers. The movie’s key revelation is a sly one: Toback has dramatized how much the spirituality (and crazy- existential anxiety) we all tend to keep private is, in fact, part of our common experience. It’s there, in different ways, in a philosopher, a boxer, a scientist, a musician. The chief pleasure of The Big Bang lies in seeing how much you have in common with people so different from yourself. Who would have thought Don Simpson, producer of such crass movie packages as Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, could come off as a soulful humanist? It’s not that Simpson isn’t a canny blowhard — it’s that he lets you see the desperation that drives him onward.
Toback has always taken a ribbing in the press, both for his macho- meshuggener mov-ies and (more recently) for his compulsive womanizing. Now he seems to be trying to reveal a new, modest side. The Big Bang sometimes gets bogged down in psychobabble, but it’s a refreshing change of pace, both from Toback’s other movies and from the lockstep commercialism of today’s Hollywood. It deserves to be seen, and savored.