Having perhaps watched way too many Frank Capra films while growing up, first-time writer-director Thomas Bezucha has come up with a drippy romantic fable – one bathed not in corn chowder but in maple syrup: Big Eden. In this overlong romantic comedy, every damn person in the small, picturesque Montana community of the title is kind-hearted, open-minded, politically correct, and utterly unreal. Worse yet, they are all, to one degree or another, matchmakers – and of a special kind. The whole community wants what is best for the two local gay men, Henry (Arye Gross), the prodigal son who has just returned home from the New York jungle to take care of his ailing grandfather (George Coe), and Pike (Eric Schweig), the pathologically shy local store owner.
Years earlier, Henry had left Big Eden because of an unrequited love. Upon seeing his recently divorced high-school buddy, Dean (Tim DeKay), Henry realizes that his feelings haven’t changed. Dean, however, as far as anyone knows is not interested in guys. But then again, strange things do happen in Big Eden.
In the meantime, the town’s unofficial Chief Matchmaker (and the most dreadful cook west of the Mississippi), the Widow Thayer (Nan Martin), tries to set Henry up with every single eligible bachelor she can find. With more finesse, the local teacher, Grace Cornwell (Louise Fletcher), gently tries to hook Henry up with Pike, who immediately falls for Henry.
What Pike sees in Henry is a mystery, for Gross makes his character quite unsympathetic. Obsessed with the hunky Dean, Henry exudes a haughtiness that does indeed mark him as an outsider – though not one who would become anybody‘s idea of a romantic partner.
The film’s other baffling mystery is the way all those people in rural Montana, of all places, act towards those two gay guys. Have their spirits been lifted by the majestic landscape of snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes that surround Big Eden? Is Big Eden what the renowned (and most likely overrated) biblical Garden was supposed to have been like (minus the rotten cooking of the local widow)? Did someone drop ecstasy in the local water before Henry’s arrival? Or perhaps the locals fear that if Pike doesn’t find true love, he’ll close shop, leave town, and everyone will starve to death.
In any case, whatever their reasons for being more loving than the angel who makes the mistake of saving James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, Big Eden is marred by Bezucha’s inability to create magic out of treacle. Compounding matters, the humorous touches that could have been the film’s saving grace frequently fall flat.
On the positive side, the film boasts a generally capable cast that helps undercut the overall sweetness with either a little tartness or just the sort of down-to-earth honesty that is missing from the screenplay. Of those, Louise Fletcher’s caring teacher and Nan Martin’s Deadliest Cook of the West are particularly notable. Big Eden is also immensely helped by the work of cinematographer Rob Sweeney, who unobtrusively captures the beauty of the local scenery.
In the Big Eden DVD audio commentary, Bezucha says he wanted to ensure that the film’s rural characters would not be portrayed as “backward people.” Thus, they drink cappuccinos and espressos, they have computers and other modern equipment in their hospitals, and some of them may even have heard of the Internet. That is all fine, except that all those modern amenities exist in Montana today without preventing a not inconsiderable chunk of the population from wanting their social system to revert back to the 18th century. A little darkness would have gone a long way into making Big Eden a place – and a film – closer to reality, and, paradoxically, closer to magic. By golly, even the Garden had a serpent.
Big Eden (2001). Dir. / Scr.: Thomas Bezucha. Cast: Arye Gross, Eric Schweig, Tim DeKay, Louise Fletcher, Nan Martin, George Coe