It is difficult to evaluate a film like Bigger Than Life. There is so much more to it than meets the eye, yet it isn't necessarily that entertaining. Starring and produced by James Mason (he also had an uncredited role in writing the screenplay), this film comes with a high critical reputation, some going as far as to say it is director Nicholas Ray's masterpiece. This film at times can be very good, but it certainly not a masterpiece in my opinion. If one should seek a directorial masterpiece by Nicholas Ray, one should view In a Lonely Place.
When this film was released it did not do very well at the box, and also it was criticized for being an attack on the family. The film is heavy handed in its melodrama, which is about James Mason's character's addiction to cortisone, at the time a miracle drug that saves his life but inevitably makes him dangerously psychotic. The film relates the impact this has on his wife and son and on his life generally.
The interesting thing about this film is how it reflects the culture of the time. The film makes subtle comments about a myriad of issues: drug addiction, mental illness and its social taboo; the condescending way the medical profession deals with patients and their families; the role of women in the home; suburbia and consumerism; and parenting. These issues are not apparent unless one seriously reflects upon it, and consequently if one sees this film purely for its entertainment value, it is an average film.
I imagine this film was seen as an attack on the family due to the way it portrays this particular family in such a sterile way. This film was made during the baby boom, yet this is a one child (who is about 10 yrs old) family with a stay at home mom. The wife does not appear satisfied or empowered by the fact she is forbidden by her husband to work outside the home, even though this is a small family with one child soon to be a teenager. There appears to be a certain emotional sterility between the characters of James Mason and Barbara Rush, who plays the wife and mother, almost a chasm of frustrated intimacy. Looking at this couple, it was difficult to imagine any emotional and physical intimacy between them, though there was genuine love that was struggling to become more intimate.
The DVD commentary argues that this film was a critique of the so-called conformity and boredom of the development of suburbia and consumerism. I think this is misguided, since I disagree with the premise that suburbia and consumerism are all that bad. Coming out of the Great Depression and WWII, and even today for most of the people of the world or those who live in concrete jungles, suburbia and consumerism don't look that bad. Suburbia offers recreational and cultural activities that were not available to the masses prior to its emergence. As for social conformity, this exists in any social situation, not just the suburbia of the 1950's. If anything, the film in my opinion should not be seen as a critique of the material well being found in suburbia, but how the emotional and spiritual values of a family are compromised when a genuine concern for the other takes a back seat to individualism and materialism as an ultimate value rather than a blessing.