Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss) used to be a radical, he used to believe in something, but now this far into the nineteen-seventies he has other things to worry about, like paying the bills, holding down his job as a private investigator, or trying to see his two kids for whom his ex-wife Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia) has custody, and she’s more interested in her self-help guru boyfriend than Moses’ problems. But one Halloween evening, he is sitting alone in his apartment playing a board game when there’s a knock at the door; thinking it’s another trick or treater, he answers it only to find there’s someone he recognises standing there. His old girlfriend from his activist days Lila Shay (Susan Anspach) and she has a proposal for him…
Director Jeremy Paul Kagan had great interest in the idea that the politically-charged sixties had given way to a malaise, even in those who were active in the field, by the seventies, and spent three movies back then concentrating on the matter, of which The Big Fix was the last in a loose trilogy and probably the best known. Although that was relative to the others since this still wasn’t particularly well known, in spite of a fairly major star like Dreyfuss (also producer) in the lead, but some have fond memories of catching it down the decades, and it did have a shaggy dog story likeability about it that in some ways anticipated cult movies like The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice far more than the commonly referenced precedent The Long Goodbye did.
This was a conspiracy film masquerading as a private eye story, so while Moses would seem to have a connection to Philip Marlowe, he was more of a piece with Warren Beatty in The Parallax View or other paranoid thrillers of the era, it was just that he went about his business with more self-deprecating humour in a manner obviously tailored to the star’s talents. So this was an actor’s vehicle in that sense, yet you could feel he genuinely felt strongly about the predicament his character landed in, not just the mystery plot he became embroiled with, but also that mood of loss, of missing a chance to really improve, that had dissipated now that he had more grown-up things to worry about and were disappearing further into the past with each day.
But was this radicalism consigned to yesteryear for a valid reason, or had the powers that be engineered an apathy in voters to ensure they could preserve the status quo after a wobble in society where it seemed something was truly going to shake them up? This didn’t address that directly, but it was always in the background as Moses' plans are now anchored to needing to make a wage and look after his kids, who frequently are pulled along behind him when he’s on a case, a constant reminder that he has responsibilities to take care of, smaller concerns than the whole of the country. That is why when Lila reappears in his life it’s as if he can reclaim his lost youth once more, she’s a bright, winning presence who draws him into a web of subterfuge that even she had no idea existed.
This is because she never gave up her political engagement and is now working for a liberal candidate in the Californian state elections who has recently suffered what looks like a smear campaign as an apparent radical from the sixties is trying to derail his work by association – or is someone posing as this man to do the same, someone with principles harder to the right? That being connected to someone who took part in anti-Vietnam War protests, for instance, could in the climate of the late seventies be a liability, never mind actually being an ex-activist yourself, was very telling, but Kagan was careful not to let the issues distract from the essential thriller elements. Working from Roger L. Simon’s script, who adapted his own harder-edged novel, there were some very decent laughs here mostly stemming from Dreyfuss’ jovially irascible persona, though he was capable enough to sell scenes where things got nasty or melancholy. If it was a shade plain in its presentation, the lack of overt style resembling television drama of the day, the actors and themes generated the distinctive disposition. Music by Bill Conti.