"Charlie, how could this be any worse?"
So reasons small-time scammer Gus (Simon Pegg) to Charlie (David Schwimmer) about halfway through Jean-Baptiste Andrea's Big Nothing, as he tries to convince his disgruntled partner-in-crime to see their first job through to its end. Rest assured, though, things are going to get a whole lot worse.
Charlie is an unemployed teacher, an unpublished author, and an all-round klutz. Desperate to bring wealth and happiness to his cop wife Penelope (Natascha McElhone) and their young daughter, he joins his call centre colleague Gus and Gus' one-time girlfriend Josie (Alice Eve) in a "completely non-violent enterprise" to blackmail a paedophile priest. Plagued by a series of unfortunate coincidences, their simple plan is soon spinning out of control, as they find themselves embroiled in a small-town intrigue involving snuff movies, adultery, a visiting poisoner, a local serial killer, mistaken identity, missing bodies, and more cash than they had ever imagined. And with the FBI's crack investigator Agent Hymes (Jon Polito), aka 'the Eye', due in town any moment, the three had better get their stories straight fast before they too end up permanently out of the picture.
It may be set in the state of Oregon, and it may all have been shot in Wales, the Isle of Man and British Columbia, but Big Nothing, with its crime-gone-wrong plotting, its grotesque characters and its darkly funny dialogue, hales unmistakably from the generic territory previously occupied by the Coen brothers - something which is expressly acknowledged late in the film with the arrival of Jon (Miller's Crossing) Polito as a diabetic 'tec looking for a lucrative retirement package.
Jean-Baptiste Andrea and his co-writer Billy Asher (who also plays the ill-fated Deputy Garman) have constructed an off-kilter world where, over the course of one long evening, karmic retribution is paid out by the septic-tank-full, as the greedy, ambitious, guileful or worse all get their gleefully disproportionate come-uppance. In this blackest of comedies, reminiscent of Very Bad Things and 11:14, the cosmic joker reigns supreme, and though death may come fast and frequent, it always wears a smile.
Shot with a panoply of skewed angles and three-way split screens by cinematographer Richard Greatrex, Big Nothing has a stylised look to match its quirky performances. Tense, cruel and hilariously absurd all at once, it may, as its title suggests, not add up to so very much, but it is a deliciously entertaining journey into the night which, at under 90 minutes, never overstays its welcome.