Tuesday, January 23

Love | Hate: Does an all-star cast hinder or help ‘Big Little Lies’?


The HBO show "Big Little Lies" features a cast of award-winning actresses such as Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman (left to right). The mystery show takes place in Monterey, California, and connects elite mothers to a murder investigation. (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO)

The HBO show "Big Little Lies" features a cast of award-winning actresses such as Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley and Nicole Kidman (left to right). The mystery show takes place in Monterey, California, and connects elite mothers to a murder investigation. (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO)


The myth goes that once a movie star starts doing television, she’s no longer in her prime. HBO’s “Big Little Lies” shows that may not necessarily be true.

“Big Little Lies,” which premiered Feb. 19 with new episodes on Sundays, follows A-list, Golden Globe- and Academy Award-nominated actresses Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern as four mothers in Monterey, California, who are drawn into a murder case.

All-star casts can be a hit or miss – just look at the acclaim of “Ocean’s Eleven” versus the flop of “The Expendables.” In this week’s Love | Hate, A&E writersErin Nyren and Linda Xu debate whether the all-star cast of “Big Little Lies” is a success or a failure.

Love

“Big Little Lies” piqued my interest in December when I saw the HBO show would star Witherspoon, Kidman and Woodley.

The show follows the story of the mothers, their children and their husbands as they navigate the treacherous political game of parenthood in elementary school domination, all viewed in retrospect after an unidentified character is murdered at a school fundraiser.

[Related: Movie Review: “How Do You Know”]

After watching the first three episodes, the show and its actors’ performances fulfilled my high expectations. The show is also attractive to me for its setting of Monterey, near my hometown, and the fact that it’s a murder mystery – my television genre of choice.

Casting big-name actors strategically draws in more resources and viewership for a project. Ensemble dramas can be difficult to pull off with so many characters’ storylines to keep track of, but stars with proven track records can buoy the plot.

Kidman, who won the Academy Award for best actress for her performance as Virginia Woolf in 2002’s “The Hours,” is perfectly suited to deliver the oft-reserved, sometimes dark personality of Celeste in “Big Little Lies.”

Adam Scott, a veteran of “Parks and Recreation” and movies such as “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” is generally soft-spoken and tolerant as Witherspoon’s husband, but occasionally shows his angrier side as well.

The benefits of an all-star ensemble cast depend on the actors themselves. If an actor is extremely well-known for predominantly large box office films or has a very strong off-screen persona, like Johnny Depp or Jennifer Lawrence, it can be difficult to see them as their characters rather than their real-life selves. But with actors who also spend time out of the spotlight, work on lower budget films or have lower-profile private lives, all-star casts can work well.

For example, Witherspoon’s last major film was “Wild” in 2014, for which she received an Academy Award nomination, and she maintains a relatively private life off screen. She disappears seamlessly into her role as gossipy, “kamikaze” mom Madeline Mackenzie.

Woodley’s real-life persona makes her somewhat of an outsider in Hollywood because of her youth and involvement in indie films, but it allows her to melt into her character as a young, single mother who just relocated to Monterey.

[Related: Second Take: Shailene Woodley’s arrest increases publicity for pipeline protest]

The extended plots of television series provide more opportunities for all-star actors to show their chops, building their characters as the show progresses.

“Big Little Lies” has just begun, with only three aired episodes to its name. Hopefully as the show proceeds, viewers will get to see even more of Hollywood’s finest doing what they do best.

– Erin Nyren

Hate

Too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the broth, and too many all-star actors on one screen can spoil the show.

HBO’s new miniseries “Big Little Lies” has assembled quite the roster. Big-name actresses such as Witherspoon, Kidman and Dern play dueling mothers battling it out in a setting straight out of an Anthropologie catalogue.

Hidden resentments and large personalities turn the seaside town of Monterey into a beachy war zone. With so much untapped potential in one show, however, some characters overshadow others, creating an unequal distribution of nuance and depth.

Witherspoon plays headstrong, meddling mother Madeline, a human Jenga tower whose delicate framework is held in unstable balance. The clear driving force of the show, Witherspoon takes on a well-developed character whose frenetic, type-A personality disguises internal strife, amplified by a drifting teenage daughter and unresolved issues from her past marriage.

Her character is so strong, in fact, that she steals every scene in which she’s even mentioned, leaving other characters, such as Woodley’s, in the dust.

Jane (Woodley) is framed as the main protagonist of the show, but even generous screen time and a mysterious backstory can’t redeem the actual lack of focus on the single mother.

The actress has previously played gentle yet strong female leads in movies such as “The Fault in our Stars” and the “Divergent” series, bringing similar reserved traits to her character in “Big Little Lies.” Her quiet demeanor occasionally provides opportunity for intrigue, but it’s overshadowed by Witherspoon’s character who takes Jane under her wing as a sort of PTA protege.

Zoe Kravitz plays Madeline’s ex-husband’s wife and her polar opposite – a more convincing parent than Woodley, but even Kravitz can’t compete with Witherspoon’s ostentatious presence and quippy one-liners. The script reduces Kravitz to a new-age hippie yoga mom.

“She probably gives mint-flavored, organic blow jobs,” says Madeline about the younger mother.

Perhaps the only match for Madeline is Celeste (Kidman), who makes up for her reserved exterior with a passionate and dark private life. Her burgeoning storyline builds up a wall of tension that Kidman develops through close-up shots of her face conveying contempt and guilt.

For a show that is one melodramatic gaze across the horizon away from being an unrelatable soap opera, Kidman allows the audience to empathize with a character.

“Big Little Lies” only has four episodes left to prove itself as more than just a lineup of Hollywood hotshots. All-star casts only work well when actors can develop convincing stories of the people they portray, rather than being depicted as one-dimensional typecasts to make room for larger personalities.

Given the chance, each character has the capacity to be as big and bold as Madeline Mackenzie.

Linda Xu

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Erin Nyren is the current assistant editor of The Quad. She also writes for arts & entertainment. She enjoys writing about music, film, food and drink.

Xu is the assistant editor for the Lifestyle beat of A&E. She was previously an A&E reporter.


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