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‘Big Little Lies’ is a Thrilling Actress Showcase Nestled in a Solid Drama

Created by: David E. Kelley
Premieres: Sunday, February 19th @ 9PM on HBO
Four episodes watched for review

“You love it when I’m bad.”

The story of movie stars spending time in the world of television is well-trod ground at this point. There’s little distinction left between the spheres of prestige TV and prestige film, from aesthetics to directors to casting. It was a fairly overblown story to begin with, given the rising tide of the small screen and the waning of adult-oriented pictures from Hollywood. But Big Little Lies makes a proper case for a series being truly invigorated by the presence of magnetic celebrities dipping their toes into HBO. The writing in the mini-series, which debuts this Sunday, is solid and the direction is fairly distinctive. But nothing here is as propulsive as the colliding performances of some of the most talented actors around locking into this episodic story of murder and small town disillusionment.

Leading the many interweaving elements of Big Little Lies is Reese Witherspoon as Madeline Martha Mackenzie, whose exorbitant name properly hints at her outsized personality. Madeline is the type who both wants to rule the club of school mothers and considers herself above that kind of insanity. Witherspoon plays that divide brilliantly, scooping up the character’s insecurities into a mask of deflection and petty gestures. Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) is her best friend, with her own secrets hidden beneath a seemingly sublime and electric marriage to Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). When their kids’ first day of school arrives, they meet Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a single mother arriving in town to make a fresh start.

As can be expected from that brief description, Big Little Lies is heavy on uncovered secrets and past traumas. This is exacerbated by the fact that we, the audience, know that there will soon be a murder in the city of Monterey, where all of this is set. The series is based on the bestselling novel of the same name from Liane Moriarty, the action here moved from Australia to California. That impending death is glimpsed in townspeople testimony and police press conferences, meant to replicate the novel’s use of Greek chorus narration. It’s not a wholly effective technique, with most jumps into the future disrupting the flow of the story without offering much in the way of insight. The rate of these snippets slows after the premiere episode, but they always feel necessary only as a reminder that something tragic is about to occur.

That’s a shame because there’s plenty going on in the present, to the point where the incessant is almost a nuisance. Sure, it ratchets up the tension in the general sense of wondering who will die and by whose hands, but otherwise Big Little Lies functions perfectly well as a collection of soapy narratives that link up and drift apart. Most characters approach the threat of caricature, especially Madeline and Renata Klein (Laura Dern). But the performances always drag thing back towards earth. Witherspoon makes clear the distinction between performing Madeline, who schemes in order to right subjective wrongs, and the aching mother who sees her children drifting away from her. All of her behavior is locked onto that feeling of abandonment (which the writing makes needlessly explicit at one point), and Witherspoon is remarkable at sketching out lines that the script only hints at.

Surrounding Witherspoon is a similarly capable cast; Kidman is just as good as Celeste, trying to figure out how she ended up in this particular life and if she wants to stay there. Her story grows tremendously dark, as does Jane’s, and Big Little Lies sometimes struggles with the transition from pulp to genuine suffering. But Kidman’s eyes are always searching, examining her situation and her obstacles and constantly rewriting her own narrative in her head. Woodley is just a slight step below the other two leads, but that stems somewhat from her character remaining an enigma for too long into the show’s run. Once her secrets are unveiled, her performance opens up a bit and allows her further dimension. Dern and Zoe Kravitz, who plays the new wife of Madeline’s ex-husband, are perfectly cast for these supporting roles, fleshing out detailed beings with less screen-time given to do so.

Director Jean Marc Vallee isn’t much of a stylist (beyond a general affinity for the handheld camera), but has become known for his ability to pull the best out of actors. Wild was a career highlight for Witherspoon, and they have similar artistic chemistry here. The look here isn’t amateurish by any means, the imagery highlighting the gorgeous vistas and cavernous abodes. And at times the series dips into a smart, if unoriginal technique of using thriller trappings to express underlying disconnect and loneliness. Shadows and dim lighting and characters on the edges of frame express the uneasiness of criminal melodrama as well as the ennui settling into these characters’ hearts.

Many of the positives underlying Big Little Lies are met with the aforementioned qualification of “it’s been done before”. Rarely are we this invested in the struggling emotional state of motherhood, the show so clearly aligned with the feminine perspective. That certainly adds to the unfamiliarity, but it’s not quite enough to make everything feel thrillingly new. The knowledge of the murder almost takes away from quieter moments, such as a conversation between Celeste and Madeline about searching for thrill in their lives. Still, the cast is more than enough to invest the show with urgency it might otherwise lack. The pieces of the puzzle aren’t all that interesting to try and connect. But the players within that maze make the effort of assembling the entire picture worth every minute.

Grade: B

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.